Madrid: In the all-Spanish semi-final at the Madrid Open on Saturday, the capacity crowd couldn`t quite decide whether they wanted a massive upset win for unseeded Nicolas Almagro or another victory for clay king Rafa Nadal.
In the end they were treated to a match of the highest quality, with both players cracking a slew of blistering winners and Nadal battling back from a set down to claim his place in Sunday`s final with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 success.
With half the Manolo Santana centre court bathed in sunshine and the rest in chilly shadow, the feisty Almagro had sprinted into a 4-1 lead with two breaks of the second seed`s serve.
Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo was again in a front row seat at the Magic Box arena and it looked for a while as if Real fan Nadal might be poised to suffer a shock exit to his lesser-known compatriot, ranked 35.
But the 24-year-old Almagro from Murcia in southern Spain was unable to maintain the early intensity, suffering two breaks of serve in each of the second and third sets in the face of some gritty Nadal strokeplay.
Almagro almost alienated the crowd at one point in the decider when he lost his temper with a ball girl but was given a rousing ovation as he left the court and even Nadal was moved to clap him off.
"The way I was playing at the start was the way I had to play," Almagro, who has lost all his six matches against Nadal, told a news conference.
"I`ll have to keep working and maybe sooner or later I can manage to beat Rafa," he added.
World number three Nadal, who lost to Swiss number one Roger Federer in the 2009 final, is bidding for a third straight Masters title of the year on his favoured surface after triumphs in Monte Carlo and Rome.
If he reaches Sunday`s final, he will reclaim the number two ranking from Serb Novak Djokovic, who pulled out of Madrid due to illness, and victory would set a new record for Masters Series titles of 18.
Nadal and retired American Andre Agassi both have 17 and Federer 16.
Federer will seek a place in the final later on Saturday against another Spaniard, ninth seed David Ferrer, whom he has beaten on all nine occasions he has played him.