Hail Rafael! Nadal reaches his 11th Italian Open final in Rome

Rome (AFP) - Defending champion Rafael Nadal swept past Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 to advance to his 50th Masters final and first on clay this season at the Italian Open on Saturday.

The eight-time Rome winner had been stunned by Tsitsipas, seeded eighth, in the semi-finals at the Madrid Open last weekend.

But the 32-year-old Spaniard was clinical on the red clay of the Foro Italico, winning through in 1hr 42min to reach the final for the 11th time.

“It’s an important victory for me,” said Nadal. “I played a solid match against a good player who is winning a lot of matches on this surface. Last week I didn’t play very well in Madrid. Today I did better.”

Nadal, seeded second, was playing his fourth straight semi-final, but had not managed to go further on clay this season.

But he has not dropped a set so far this week and next plays either world number one Novak Djokovic or Argentine Diego Schwartzman, who meet in the second semi-final.

Nadal’s run to the Rome final comes just a week before he starts his assault on a 12th French Open title at Roland Garros.

“The feeling is that I am playing better every week, every day. That’s important for me,” he said.

“It’s not a drama to lose in semi-finals. The main thing is recover my level.

“I say in Madrid I was playing better, then I played a bad match in the semi-finals, true.

“But my feeling, especially after my loss against (Dominic) Thiem in the semi-finals of Barcelona, I think my personal feeling improved and my energy came back a little bit.”

“I’ve been through some tough moments after Indian Wells. Recovery of the knee again… was not easy to come back and to prepare myself the right way.”

- ‘What did I do wrong?’ -

Tsitsipas, meanwhile, who lost the Madrid final to Djokovic, was at a loss to explain his performance as he fell to his fourth defeat in five matches against Nadal.

“I’m just trying to realise what I did wrong,” said Tsitsipas, “because, I mean, it was just one break in each set, if I’m not wrong.”

Fellow Greek Maria Sakkari’s run was also halted in the women’s tournament as she fell 6-4, 6-4 to Czech fourth seed Karolina Pliskova in 88 minutes.

Johanna Konta stunned fourth seed Kiki Bertens final in Rome

Sakkari, a 39th-ranked Rome qualifier, had won her first WTA title on clay at the Moroccan Open when she beat Britain’s Johanna Konta.

“I think I ran out of gas,” said the 23-year-old.

Konta, ranked 42, fought back from a set down to seal victory on her fourth match point against Madrid Open winner Kiki Bertens 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 after almost three hours to set-up a Sunday final clash with Pliskova.

Dutchwoman Bertens, the sixth seed, had advanced to the semi-finals after world number one Naomi Osaka of Japan retired with a hand injury before their match Friday.

“Karolina’s been at the top of the game for years now,” said Konta.

“She’s able to perform on all surfaces. She’s able to really show up to every match.

“She’s very difficult to play in that sense because she has a big serve, she has big shots, but she’s also backing it up with being incredibly astute on court.

“It’s a final of a tournament, so you’re not going to have an easy match whoever you play.”