Rafael Nadal cleared the latest hurdle on his quest for a third clay-court title in under a month when he overpowered France’s Michael Llodra 6-2, 6-2 on Friday to set up a Madrid Masters semi-final against Roger Federer.
The heavyweight pair were joined in the final four by unseeded Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci, who caused another upset following Thursday’s third-round victory against fourth seed Andy Murray when he knocked out Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic 7-6 (7/2), 6-3.
Bellucci, a stylish left-hander whose previous best at a Masters event was a fourth-round berth in Miami last year, will play in-form Novak Djokovic for a place in the final.
The Serbian second seed silenced the home fans when he ended the hopes of sixth-seeded Spaniard David Ferrer 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 to take his winning streak to 32 and his win-loss record this year to 30-0, the third-best season start on record.
“I expected a very close match as he never gives up and he’s a great fighter,” Djokovic said of Ferrer in a television interview. “Bellucci is obviously hitting the ball really well at this tournament and it’s his favorite surface so it’s going to be another tough match tomorrow.”
Djokovic’s red-hot form has led to speculation he could challenge Nadal’s dominance on clay, especially in the Spanish capital where the courts are quick and the altitude makes the ball fly faster.
Nadal and his great rival Federer, who have 26 Grand Slam singles titles between them, have met in the previous two Madrid finals, with the Swiss winning in 2009 and Nadal gaining revenge last year.
Former world No. 1 Federer went through to the final four when he saw off fifth seed Robin Soderling 7-6 (7/2), 6-4 in breezy conditions in the Magic Box arena, his 16th win in 17 matches against the Swede.
“The conditions were tough today. I didn’t know you could get so much wind inside an enclosed space,” Federer said.
Nadal recorded back-to-back titles on his beloved clay at the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open last month, beating Davis Cup teammate Ferrer in both finals.
The 24-year-old Spaniard’s win against the unseeded Llodra was his 36th consecutive victory on the red dirt since falling to Soderling in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open.
On the women’s side, Julia Goerges booked the first of the semi-final spots, defeating Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 6-2.
Goerges will meet fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a winner over Czech Lucie Safarova by 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
In the other quarter-finals, China’s sixth-seeded Li Na beat the US’ Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 and will face Czech Petra Kvitova, who put out Dominika Cibulkova 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.