Indian Wells - A resurgent Rafael Nadal booked his berth Saturday in the final at the ATP Indian Wells Masters, his toughest test since returning from a seven-month injury absence.
Nadal beat sixth-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych 6-4, 7-5 to reach his first hard court final since his loss to Novak Djokovic in epic five-set final at the 2012 Australian Open.
It won't be Djokovic across the net on Sunday, however, but Juan Martin del Potro. The seventh-seeded Argentinian stunned the world No 1 from Serbia 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to reach the title match.
Nadal has now reached the final in four consecutive tournaments since returning last month from a seven-month absence rehabilitating his injured left knee.
But Indian Wells is a step up from the three modest clay court tournaments he played in Latin America, not only because of the more punishing hard-court surface but because the field featured 49 of the top 50 men in the world.
The fifth-seeded Spaniard saved three break points in the final game against sixth-seeded Berdych before gaining a first match point.
A wayward forehand cost him that one, but Berdych's backhand into the net gave him another, and when Berdych knocked a backhand service return into the net, Nadal thrust his arms into the air in triumph.
Against Berdych, who was coming off back-to-back finals appearances at Marseille and Dubai, Nadal was in control for most of the match.
Berdych gained his first break point at 4-3 in the second set - and Nadal coughed up his only double fault of the match to give him the break and a chance to serve out the set.
Nadal shrugged off the lapse to break back immediately - for him the crucial moment of the match.
"I played my best game of the match in the 5-3, playing very aggressive, having two very, very good points with my forehand down the line," Nadal said.
"Especially after having the break and the game with double fault, to be able to forget that and be able to be focused on the next game, on the first point of the next game, and finally do the right things to be back on the serve was decisive."
Nadal's comeback began with a run to the final at Vina del Mar, followed by titles in Sao Paulo and Acapulco.
His run to the final here included a quarter-final triumph over 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, but Nadal said he is still finding his feet on court.
It's not only a matter of physical ability and timing, but also of regaining the ability to make good decisions at critical points in a match.
"Even if I had a lot of success the last weeks, for example, today I was very nervous at the end of the match," he said. "I was lucky that my serve worked amazing in the last game in important moments.
"There are some things that you need to adjust, and victories like today help you a lot for the confidence and to remember all the things that you have to do in every moment."