Rafael Nadal said he expected a tough battle with Novak Djokovic for his eighth Rome Masters title after sweeping aside Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-2 in the semi-finals.
Nadal came through a tough clash with British No. 1 Andy Murray late on Friday, but the world No. 1 had little trouble dispatching Dimitrov in what was an error-strewn performance from the 12th seed.
Meanwhile, defending women’s champion Serena Williams was to meet Italian Sara Errani yesterday in a bid to defend her title.
Overall, Djokovic has won 18 of his 40 previous meetings with Nadal, including the past three, although they came on hard courts.
Of the duo’s 16 meetings on clay, Nadal has won 13, including their most recent meeting on the surface at the semi-finals of the French Open last year.
Nadal said he expects a “complicated” match.
“Djokovic always plays unbelievable. He’s a complicated player to play against,” Nadal said. “It’s difficult to imagine him playing bad. The only way I can win is playing with really good rhythm, playing aggressively and trying my best. It will be a very difficult match, but I have to be ready.”
Having been pushed all the way by Murray, Nadal had little trouble against an outclassed Dimitrov.
“I started the match perfectly, he made more mistakes than usual, but I think I really played a solid match,” Nadal said. “I felt I had control of the ball and the game, more often than in the last few days. Today I felt the forehand was starting to fly again with the topspin.”
Djokovic, the No. 2 seed, ousted David Ferrer 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 in the quarter-finals on Friday.
On Saturday the Serbian world No. 2 was stretched over two tight sets by Canadian Milos Raonic, whose serves were regularly coming in just under the 230kph mark, before outlasting the eighth seed in a one-sided third.
“I can’t recall the last time when I was feeling so helpless returning, even his second serves,” Djokovic said after the 6-7 (5/7), 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 win.
The pair’s only previous meeting came last year, when Djokovic beat the Canadian in straight sets in a Davis Cup semi-final.
A year on from that win, Raonic, 23, left a much bigger impression on the six-time Grand Slam champion.
“He did surprise me with his movement, especially given his size, and he’s got variety in his shots. You could feel the improvement in his game,” Djokovic said.
Earlier, Errani booked her place in the women’s final to maintain her hopes of becoming the first Italian woman to win the tournament in 29 years.
The 27-year-old 10th seed had upset China’s No. 2 seed Li Na 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 on Friday and went on oust Serbian sixth seed Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 7-5 in their semi-final.
“It was quite difficult out there, Sara played a great match and credit to her,” Jankovic said. “Overall it was a difficult day, I gave my best, but there are a lot of things I could have done better.”
Errani was ousted from the semi-finals last year by Victoria Azarenka, who went on to lose last year’s final to Williams.
She admitted that the home support was so intense she had to concentrate hard.
“I’ve never felt something like the before. The crowd were giving me so much support that it almost put me off,” Errani said.
Raffaella Reggi was the last Italian woman to win the Italian Open, in 1985.
Williams and Errani have met six times and Williams has won on every occasion.