Tennis-Djokovic battles past gutsy Murray to set up Nadal final
* Djokovic face Nadal in dream final
* Murray takes Serb to the brink in three-set thriller
* Djokovic unbeaten run for the year now 36 matches (writes through with quotes)
By Richard Allen
ROME, May 14 (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic will clash at the Rome Masters in another dream showpiece on clay after winning their semi-finals on Saturday in vastly different circumstances with the French Open just over a week away.
World number one Nadal reached his sixth consecutive final this year after brushing aside Frenchman Richard Gasquet 7-5 6-1 but second seed Djokovic was forced to scrap for his victory.
The Serb won a late-night third-set tie-break to beat his British opponent 6-1 3-6 7-6 in an exhilarating three-hour encounter to stretch his unbeaten run this year to 36 matches.
"It was a fantastic match and whoever saw it knows how close it was," said second seed Djokovic, who has won six straight tournaments this year including a first victory on clay over Spaniard Nadal at the Madrid Open last week.
"He (Murray) played really well. I had to earn my points as he wasn't making a lot of errors. It took a lot out of both of us and unfortunately someone had to lose."
On finishing the match after 2300 local time, the Serbian said he would try to recover to be fully fit for Sunday's final which is scheduled at 1600.
"I made the mistake of playing 40 games in the past four months -- that's what went wrong in the second set," he said. "I've played more matches than any player, so it's normal that you get exhausted. I will do my best to recover for tomorrow."
Djokovic broke Murray's serve in the second game and then twice more as the Scot struggled to live with the Serb's power and precision in the first set.
But Murray, who had won three of their previous four confrontations, found the slower pace of the second set much more to his liking, prospering in the long backhand rally exchanges and breaking in the fifth game to square the match.
In a thrilling deciding set, Djokovic broke Murray's serve in the fifth game but the gutsy Scot refused to give up on a single point and broke back for 3-3 with a blistering backhand followed by a forehand as the momentum swung back his way.
Four more breaks of serve followed at an increasingly noisy Foro Italico as Murray broke the serve of an exhausted-looking Djokovic for a third time in the set for 5-4 but, helped by two double faults, the Serb summoned the energy to break back again in a game lasting more than eight minutes.
Djokovic was always ahead in the tiebreak, producing a drop shot and then a lob to reach 6-2 before sealing the match with another drop shot as he let out a loud victory scream to underline how close he had come to losing his unbeaten run.
"I probably should have won," Murray, who celebrates his 24th birthday on Sunday, told reporters. "I'm one of the best closers on the circuit. I think it's the first time I haven't finished a match on serve and I hope it's the last."
Despite the loss, the Scot said he was confident of competing for titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
"The supposed crisis I was in is over," he said. "I was in a bad place mentally but my tennis will never go away. I feel I can compete with those guys at the top. I feel I'm moving well on clay and I definitely think I can win the French."
Earlier Nadal, who had almost pulled out of the tournament earlier in the week after suffering from a virus, broke the Gasquet serve at 5-5 to win the first set before powering through the second against the tired Frenchman.
"I'm playing better every day," said Nadal, who has won the Rome Masters five times in the past six years.
"He (Gasquet) is playing really well right now and I had to save a few tough situations with my serve. It's been a tough week and I'm happy to be in my sixth final in a row."
Nadal, who has lost to Djokovic in three previous finals this year, said the Serb would now be the man to beat.
"He (Djokovic) has beaten me in the last few tournaments and it seems he's unbeatable this year," he said ahead of the Murray semi-final. "He's in a different league. I've lost my favourite status, so I'll play without 100 percent pressure."
Twelfth seed Gasquet began confidently but after flashing a backhand winner at 3-2, he failed to convert two break points as Nadal conjured up a pair of high-kicking serves to save.
He then pounced in the 11th game, rushing the 16th seed's second serve to make the decisive break to 15.
Gasquet, who had already knocked out Roger Federer in the third round and seventh-seed Tomas Berdych late on Friday, summoned the energy to respond in the next game but after a spectacular rally at deuce the Spaniard produced a vicious forehand to end the point and the set.
Nadal, who won all eight previous matches between the two, raced through the second set, breaking in the first, fifth and seventh games to stretch his win-loss record in Rome to 31-1.
"I was a little bit tired after the matches with Roger and Tomas," said Gasquet. "I played a one hour first set. I wanted to take my break points because I was serving well and the court was fast, but I didn't take my chances and against Rafa it's very hard to come back."
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