Rafael Nadal overcame Roger Federer 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 to set up a Madrid Masters final against Novak Djokovic on an emotional day that had started with a tearful tribute to Severiano “Seve” Ballesteros.
World No. 1 Nadal stood side-by-side with old rival Federer in a minute’s silence at the Caja Magica, before a movie of Ballesteros’s greatest moments played out on the giant courtside screens.
“It’s a terrible day for Spain and the world. We lost a great champion, probably the greatest in the history of Spain,” Nadal said of the 54-year-old golfing legend, who lost his fight against cancer. “Seve was one of the pioneers in so many things ... especially in golf. He was an example to everyone.”
Despite the sombre occasion, Nadal, with a black ribbon pinned to his shirt as a mark of respect for his compatriot, went on to thrill his fans and reach his third Madrid final in three years.
His victory set up a familiar final for the world No. 1, with Nadal to face off for the third straight time at a Masters this season against world No. 2 Djokovic.
The Serb overcame an early lapse to hold off unseeded Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. One way or another, a streak will be broken in the final with Nadal not having lost on clay in 37 matches and Djokovic undefeated on all surfaces this year after 31 straight wins.
Federer started the match poorly, losing his first service game, which was marred by a double fault and an over-hit forehand.
The 16-time Grand Slam champion also failed to convert any of three break points in a lengthy fourth game, with Nadal eventually stretching his leading margin to 4-2 with a love game.
However, the Swiss world No. 3 worked his magic to get back to level-pegging, 4-4, and held in dramatic fashion after saving three break points in the 11th game for 6-5.
A sizzling Federer passing shot to the far reaches gave him a set point, which he finished cleanly with a down-the-line winner, breaking Nadal for the second time and taking the early lead after 64 minutes.
However, the Swiss suffered a reversal in the first game of the second set, with Nadal breaking via a controversial ball deemed good by chair umpire Mohamed Layhani to the dismay of Federer.
Federer seethed quietly throughout the set as Nadal squared the match.
In the decider, Federer went down a break 1-3 on a forehand called out by centimeters, then dropped serve in the next game.
It set the tone for the remainder, with Nadal scraping home on his first match point as Federer netted a backhand.
In the women’s action, fourth-seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus moved to within one victory of a third title from her past four WTA events when she ended the hopes of Germany’s Julia Goerges 6-4, 6-2.
Azarenka, who won back to back trophies in Miami and Marbella last month, will play Czech 16th-seed Petra Kvitova, who dispatched sixth-seed Australian Open finalist Li Na of China 6-3, 6-1.