ROME -- Rafael Nadal withstood a serious test from 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 133 mph, Gulbis didn't allow Nadal his usual rhythm on his return game and the Spaniard converted only two of 12 break points.
Nadal broke Gulbis in the opening game of the match and didn't do it again until the final game.
Upon sealing the 2-hour, 46-minute match, Nadal to 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."
Nadal will be aiming for his fifth Rome title in six years when he meets David Ferrer in Sunday's title match. His fellow Spaniard 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 clay-court tournament, 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."
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.
Gulbis held a 50-18 edge in winners, but committed 56 unforced errors to Nadal's 23. Gulbis had 13 aces to none for Nadal.
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, Gulbis started swinging more freely and broke Nadal in the third game when the Spaniard ran around his backhand and missed a difficult inside-out angled forehand into the net.
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 a drop-shot winner.
Gulbis saved another break at 3-4 with a big first serve, but he fell behind 0-40 on his next service game. No longer able to run down Nadal's drop shots, he appeared to succumb exhaustion on Nadal's first match point.
Nadal's 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 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."
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. He showed little of the blistering groundstrokes of his recent matches, however, and had trouble running down Ferrer's frequent drop shots.
Ferrer has not dropped a set this week and leads the tour with 23 wins on clay this season.