Rome – World number one Rafael Nadal dug deep to maintain his chances of defending his Rome Masters title after a gutsy come-from-behind 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 win over Andy Murray in the quarter-finals on Friday.
Murray had won only five of his last 18 matches against Nadal but held the bragging rights from their last two – a walkover win in the semis of the Miami Masters and victory in the final of the Tokyo Open in 2011, both hardcourt events.
And despite doubts lingering over the Scot's clay-court form following an absence from the tour due to back surgery at the end of last year, Murray produced a stunning performance at the Foro Italico to underline his form ahead of the French Open later this month.
“I feel liked I've played good matches and given him (Nadal) a lot of problems,” said Murray.
“I would have liked to have won tonight's match because I had the opportunities.
“I just messed it up a little bit. You don't get loads of chances... so I'm disappointed at that.
“But he finished the match very well. He won the last three games.”
The Scot raced to a 6-1 win in the opening set, leaving clay-court kind Nadal to tinker with tactics in the second set in a bid to pull level.
In a much tighter third set, Nadal maintained his momentum by winning three breaks to two for Murray.
The Spaniard broke in the first game, only for Murray to break back immediately in a second game which saw the Scot pull off a stunning pull-back shot which stunned Nadal and had the crowd in raptures.
“I don't know how he hit the ball, you don't expect a shot like this,” admitted the Spaniard.
It gave Murray some momentum of his own and the British number one held serve to go 2-1 in front.
Both players held serve in the next two games and with the score at 3-2 Murray raced to triple break point to break again and take a two-game lead after Nadal netted a return from a powerful serve.
But the Spaniard upped his game and broke back to level at 4-4.
“I played a poor game at 4-2 (up), I rushed a little bit. I was being very patient for most of the match and waiting for the right ball,” added Murray.
Both players held serve over the next two games, but Nadal made the difference when he raced to triple break point in the 11th game before breaking for a third time in the set for a 6-5 lead and then serving out for the win.
“It's a victory that really means a lot to me,” said Nadal.
“It's a great feeling for me being in semi-finals, especially winning against Andy.”
Nadal will now meet Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov in the semis on Saturday, when number two seed Novak Djokovic faces Canada's Milos Raonic.
Djokovic ousted David Ferrer 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 while Raonic claimed his last-four spot with a commanding 6-3, 5-7, 6-2 quarter-final win over Frenchman Jeremy Chardy.
Italy's number 10 seed Sara Errani, meanwhile, stunned China's number two seed Li Na 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 to set up a semi-final clash with Serbian sixth seed Jelena Jankovic after she accounted for Agnieszka Radwanska, the third seed from Poland, 6-4, 6-4.
Errani and Jankovic were joined in the last four by Ana
Ivanovic, although the Serbian 11th seed had to dig deep throughout a thrilling encounter with Carla Suarez Navarro before finally beating the Spaniard, seeded 13, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.
Ivanovic meets defending champion Serena Williams after she annihilated unseeded Chinese player Zhang Shuai 6-1, 6-3. – Sapa-AFP