Rafael Nadal stared down his nemesis Fabio Fognini on Saturday with a spirited 7-5, 6-3 victory to reach the China Open final and set up a shot at a redemptive title in Beijing.
Nadal has lost three times to Fognini this year, including at last month’s US Open, but he redressed the balance with a tight win and will now play Novak Djokovic or David Ferrer for the trophy.
The 14-time Grand Slam winner has been far from his best this year but he was clearly buoyed by the victory as he ripped off his bandana and saluted the crowd in the Chinese capital.
On a chilly, breezy day, both players started unconvincingly, suffering two breaks of serve each in the opening games with Nadal also sending down three double-faults.
They steadied to take it to 6-5 for Nadal but Fognini wobbled as he served to stay in the set, wilting in the rallies as he finally gave up the decisive break and smashed the ball into the stands in anger.
The second set was attritional until Nadal leapt ahead with a break for 4-2, and the suddenly invigorated Spaniard won the next game to love to stand on the brink of victory.
Fognini saved two match points before holding serve in a gripping eighth game, but by now the Nadal juggernaut was fully in motion and he ploughed across the line in the next game.
In Sunday’s final, Nadal will be seeking his fourth trophy of a season in which he has failed to win a Grand Slam title for the first time since 2004 and has seen his ranking drop to eighth.