MONTREAL: Rafael Nadal held off Novak Djokovic in three tense sets Saturday and will now try and stop Canadian Milos Raonic from making more tennis history at the Montreal Masters.
Fourth seed Nadal, champion in the event in 2005 and 2008, defeated top seed and two-time defending champion Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7/2) to reach his 10th final of the season.
Raonic, meanwhile, became the first Canadian into the tournament's final since 1958, when Robert Bedard won it.
Raonic booked his place with a 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7/4) victory over compatriot Vasek Pospisil, and with the win ensured he'll be the first Canadian ever to reach the top 10 in the ATP world rankings.
Raonic will have his work cut out against Nadal. The Spaniard has won all three of their prior encounters, including two on hardcourts.
Nadal's two-hour, 20-minute struggle with Djokovic was a tight affair, with small margins determining victory.
Nadal dominated the third-set tiebreaker, taking a 6-0 lead. Djokovic saved two match points before falling.
“I tried my best in the tiebreaker,” said Nadal, winner of seven titles this season. “I had to hit some fantastic shots to compete well against a big player like Novak. I'm very, very satisfied.”
Nadal let the second set slip as he lost the eighth game from a position of strength, letting go of a 40-0 lead to drop serve and trail 3-5.
“You cannot let up against the top players for even a minute,” said Nadal, whose 57 career titles include a dozen Grand Slams.
Nadal has now won two of three meetings with world number one Djokovic this year, including a five-set thriller in the semi-finals of the French Open, just weeks after Djokovic had taken the Spaniard's Monte Carlo crown in the final.
Djokovic's defeat ended a 13-match win streak in Canada for the Serbian, who also won the title in 2007 before his back-to-back triumphs in 2011 and 2012.
“It was a very close match, there were very few points that decided the winner,” Djokovic said. “I had my chances. He had his chances, at the end he played better.
“I made a lot of double faults, which I couldn't explain, in the first set especially. After that I served well in the important moments. But he returned quite well. He was staying closer to the line and picking up the returns really, really well.”
Raonic was the winner in the first ATP semi-final between Canadians since Martin Wostenholme beat Andrew Sznajder in Rio de Janeiro 23 years ago.
“The top 10 stands out because it's a goal that I set out this year,” he said. “To be able to do it here in Montreal is pretty amazing.”
Even so, he'd like nothing better than to cap his campaign with a victory, especially over a player of Nadal's caliber. “This week's not over, by any means,” Raonic said. “There's a lot of excitement for that chance I have for myself.”
Raonic needed two and a quarter hours to claim the victory on his first match point. Two late errors from wild card Pospisil in the tiebreaker – a double-fault and a forehand long – gave Raonic the chance to seal it.
“Getting to this ranking was a big objective for me, but I still have a tough final to play, said Raonic, who fired 14 aces.
Pospisil was competing in only his second semi-final of any kind at the ATP Tour level after losing last month in Bogota.
“It was definitely a tough loss, I wanted to win that one, for sure. I was really close,” Pospisil said. “I had chances, then he played well in some moments. I made a few mistakes I haven't been making this week.”
Raonic reached the final in his 12th elite Masters 1000 event and now stands 27-13 this season.
His breakthrough comes three months after he started work with Croatian Ivan Ljubicic.