Rome :Rafael Nadal was seriously tested by Ernests Gulbis before finally wearing down his 40th-ranked opponent to pull out a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win in the semifinals of the Rome Masters on Saturday.
It was the first time in nine matches on clay this year that Nadal dropped a set.
"It was a really hard match and I didn't play well," Nadal said. "It's really difficult to play against Gulbis. His serve was really unbelievable."
Routinely putting first serves in at 215 kph (133 mph), Gulbis didn't allow Nadal his usual rhythm on return games and the Spaniard converted only two of 12 break points.
Nadal broke Gulbis in the opening game of the match and had to wait until the final game before doing it again, when a backhand from the Latvian sailed wide.
Upon sealing the 2 hour, 46-minute marathon, Nadal let out a big scream and jump with a series of fist pumps.
"I was really happy that I won such a difficult match," Nadal said. "The mental part was very good for me."
In the title match, Nadal will meet fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, who beat a sluggish Fernando Verdasco 7-5, 6-3 to advance to the first Masters Series final of his career.
The 21-year-old Gulbis was attempting to become the first player to beat both Roger Federer and Nadal in the same tournament on clay, having stunned the top-ranked Swiss in the second round.
"I knew I could play with the top players if I play good. With my serve and my powerful shots I know I'm tough to play against," Gulbis said. "I lost but I'm satisfied with this week."
Gulbis added that he hopes to get his ranking high enough to be seeded at the French Open and Wimbledon _ with Roland Garros beginning in three weeks.
"I think I have a good chance in any tournament _ especially if I don't take vacation when I shouldn't," said Gulbis, a Marat Safin-like character who said he has toned down his partying this year and started to focus more on his tennis.
The son of a wealthy financier, Gulbis reached a career high of No. 38 two years ago, then dropped outside the top 100 briefly last year.
"I thought that two years ago and, after this week, I think he can do it for sure," Nadal said of Gulbis' chances of reaching the top 10. "I saw him losing last year to some people and sometimes I didn't understand."
While the match against Federer was error-ridden on both sides, this match provided a sharp contrast in styles, with Nadal providing his usual steady and mostly error-free play and Gulbis going for winners at will.
Gulbis held a huge 50-18 edge in winners but committed 56 unforced errors to Nadal's 23. Gulbis also served 13 aces to Nadal's none.
Nadal broke Gulbis in the opening game of the match when the Latvian double faulted and maintained that lead to win the first set.
In the second set, Gulbis started swinging more freely and broke Nadal in the third game when the Spaniard ran around his background and missed a difficult inside-out angled forehand into the net.
"The first set I started really bad. I don't like serving the first game. I was too nervous," Gulbis said. "In the second set I played 10 times better with my timing, my forehand and my serving. I think he was a little scared of my forehand, and I was dictating play."
With the soldout crowd of 10,500 inside the new stadium at the Foro Italico behind him, Gulbis saved four break points at 2-3 in the third set with a variety of big serves, one forehand winner and an expert half-volley drop-shot winner.
Gulbis saved another break point at 3-4 with a big first serve out wide that Nadal returned long. But he fell behind 0-40 on his next service game, no longer able to run down Nadal's drop shots, and succumbed to apparent exhaustion on Nadal's first match point.
"The last game of the match he started putting a little pressure on and I started to rush things," Gulbis said. "I just made some mistakes and that's it."
Against Ferrer, Nadal will be aiming for his fifth Rome title in six years.
His only loss at the Foro Italico came against fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero in the opening round two years ago, when he was slowed by a foot blister.
Earlier, Verdasco jumped out to a 5-1 lead over his fellow Spaniard, but then lost six straight games to give Ferrer the set and control of the match.
Verdasco appeared worn out from his marathon-like quarterfinal victory over Novak Djokovic a day earlier _ a match that lasted 3 hours, 18 minutes.
"It was a very physical match against Novak yesterday. I was feeling good mentally, but my body was not feeling good," Verdasco said. "I wasn't just tired after 5-1. I was tired ever since I woke up this morning.
"He was making unforced errors (at the start). I wasn't playing unbelievable."
The sixth-seeded Verdasco had reached the final of his last two tournaments _ losing to Nadal in Monte Carlo two weeks ago and beating Robin Soderling to win the Barcelona Open last weekend.
Ferrer has not dropped a set this week and leads the tour with 23 wins on clay this season.