CINCINNATI // Rafael Nadal continued his perfect run on the North American hardcourts taming Czech Tomas Berdych 7-5, 7-6 at the Western and Southern Open on Saturday to setup a final showdown with big-hitting American John Isner.
Earlier, unseeded Isner had blasted his way into the final with a 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 marathon win over Juan Martin Del Potro, the Argentine.
Rebounding nicely from a shock first round upset at Wimbledon, Nadal has been in sizzling form picking up his 58th career title last week in Montreal while extending his hardcourt winning streak to 14-0 with a run to the final in Cincinnati.
A win on Sunday in his first Cincinnati final would give the third-ranked Spaniard his ninth title of the year and leave him the red-hot favourite heading into the US Open which begins on August 26 in Flushing Meadows.
"It's a very nice feeling," said Nadal. "For me, this one is a tournament that I never was able to play very well.
"I said last week, in Cincinnati I never felt that I was playing well and this year the situation is different.
"I am having the right feelings on court. I'm playing aggressive."
Nadal had the only break of a tight opening set to take the first set off the Czech in Cincinnati and grab a 1-0 lead.
In the second, Berdych, battling to end a run of 13 straight losses to the Spaniard, broke to go up 4-2 only to watch Nadal break right back and go onto take the tiebreak (7-4) and the match.
A contest between the towering 6-foot, 10-inch (2.06m) Isner and the 6-foot, 6-inch (1.98m) Del Potro was always going to be a bruising baseline battle and the match more than lived up to predictions as the two giants slugged it out for 2 hours and 47 minutes.
The semi-finals had a dramatically different look from what tennis fans might have hoped with the ATP Tour's 'big four' - world No 1 Novak Djokovic, No 2 Andy Murray, No 3 Nadal and five-time Cincinnati champion Roger Federer all featuring in the last eight.
But after a day of upsets that saw only Nadal survive, the partisan crowd still had plenty of reason to cheer as Isner carried the US flag into the semi-finals picking up his first career win in five tries against the seventh seeded Argentine.
Isner, who delivered the biggest shock of the quarter-finals toppling Djokovic, has traditionally saved his best for the home crowd with 13 of the his 15 career ATP Tour final appearances coming in the US and he proved once again to be a crowd pleaser pounding 23 aces past his opponent.
Since retiring in the second round at Wimbledon with a left knee injury Isner has been in sizzling hardcourt form putting together a 15-3 match record while picking up his seventh career title in Atlanta followed by a runner-up finish in Washington.
"I've been winning a lot of matches this summer but I feel like this tournament here is where I'm really starting to put it all together," Isner told reporters. "No offence to the other guys I've beaten prior to this but like you just said, I've beaten three top-10 guys in a row.
"I have been playing well, really in pretty much all facets of my game.
"There's definitely some stuff I can always improve on, but I do think I'm playing well."
In a tight opening set that failed to produce a break, it was Del Potro taking the initiative winning the tiebreak 7-5.
The 2009 US Open champion had looked poised to end the contest in two sets serving for the match at 5-4 only to double-fault on match point opening the door for Isner.
The 28 year old seized his chance but it was not easy needing five set points before clinching the tiebreak 11-9.
Isner rode that wave of momentum from his tiebreak into the third set breaking Del Potro at the first opportunity and pulling in front 3-0 on way to a hard-fought win.
Williams sets up Azarenka final in women's draw
Serena Williams, the world No 1, fought her way to a 7-5, 7-5 win over Li Na, the defending champion, to reach the final of the Western and Southern Open on Saturday and close in on one of the few titles to elude her.
Williams, who has been critical of her performance in Cincinnati despite making it to the final for the first time, was not at her dominating best against Li but it was a good enough effort to put the American in line for a US$1 million (Dh3.67m) bonus.
Her appearance in Sunday's final combined with a win last week in Toronto has put Williams at the top of the US Open Series bonus challenge and sends her to Flushing Meadows with a chance to compete for the largest payout ever awarded at the year's final grand slam.
Williams can pocket $3.6m, with the million-dollar bonus supplementing the $2.6m cheque for winning the women's singles at the US Open.
In a career that has generated 54 singles titles including 16 grand slams, Williams has won just about everything there is to win in her sport but Cincinnati, one of the WTA Tour's most prestigious tournaments, is not among them.
Williams can fill that hole in her resume on Sunday when she takes on Victoria Azarenka, the world No 2, who beat Jelena Jankovic in the second semi-final.
The match, which was plagued by 23 breaks of serve, saw Azarenka win 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.
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