Rafael Nadal's rivalry with Roger Federer has hardly been close on clay, where Nadal sports a gaudy 12-2 record. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)
ROME -- Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will meet for the 30th time Sunday in the final of the Italian Open. Nadal cruised past Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-4 in the first semifinal Saturday and Federer pulled out a scratchy win over surprise semifinalist Benoit Paire 7-6 (5), 6-4 in the evening session. It will be the first meeting in a final between the two since the 2011 French Open, where Nadal prevailed in four sets. Nadal leads the head-to-head 19-10, including a 12-2 edge on clay and 13-6 advantage in finals.
"It's nice to have those revival moments for the both of us because we've had some epics, particularly in finals," Federer said. "I'm sure we're both looking forward to it. I clearly am."
Federer will come into Sunday's final as an even bigger underdog than he's previously been on clay. Since Nadal returned in February after missing seven months with a knee injury, he has made the final of all eight tournaments he's played (seven of which were one clay) and won five with a chance for six on Sunday. That remarkable run will propel him to No. 1 in the Race for London rankings on Monday, meaning despite spilling the first month of the season, he has accumulated more rankings points in 2013 than Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic and Australian Open finalist and Miami champion Andy Murray.
Nadal says he played one of his best sets of tennis in the first set against Berdych on Saturday and he's brimming with confidence. If he wins on Sunday, Nadal will take over the No. 4 ranking and head into the French Open as the No. 4 seed.
"The first set was fantastic," Nadal said after beating Berdych. "I think I played one of the best matches since I am back."
While Nadal has been a runaway train upon returning to the tour, Federer's season has yet to gain much traction. Sunday will mark his first final of the season and he's benefited from a very soft draw. He has not faced a seed, let alone a top 15 player, beating Potito Starace, Gilles Simon, Jerzy Janowicz and Paire. Federer sprayed a surprising number of unforced errors against Paire in the semifinals, finishing with 19 winners to 26 unforced errors. That's a winnable line against the erratic Frenchman, but it won't be enough against Nadal.
"Rafa is a tough player for me to play against," Federer said. "He is the best player on clay that we've seen in such a long time, maybe in history. I like the challenge playing against him. I'm happy I get another opportunity."
Federer has played all four of his matches during the night sessions in Rome, where the air is markedly cooler, while Nadal has played all his matches during the day. Federer acknowledged he had a quicker turnaround for Sunday's afternoon final but no matter of fatigue would play a role.
"He's had a tough last couple of weeks," Federer said. Nadal has played 19 matches on clay covering four tournaments since mid-April. Federer has played just six matches in the last two weeks. "Does that even it out a little bit? I don't know," Federer said. "He's got the confidence, I've had the late nights. He's played a lot. My matches are a bit easier, more straightforward. So I don't think it's going to play a huge role. The better man will win tomorrow. We'll see how it goes."
Meanwhile, the women's final will feature a rematch of the WTA's marquee rivalry as top-ranked Serena Williams, who is riding a career-best 23-match winning streak, will play Victoria Azarenka, the last woman to have beaten her. Both players came through their semifinals dishing bagel sets, with Williams beating Simona Halep 6-3, 6-0 and Azarenka besting last year's French Open finalist, Sara Errani, 6-0, 7-5.
Azarenka defeated Williams 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 to win the Qatar Open in February, snapping a nine-match losing streak to the American with her first victory in the series since 2009.
"She played well in that match," Williams said, recalling their last clash. "I was just happy to be in the final in Doha at that point. It was a really tough tournament for me. I definitely had opportunities to win and I think Victoria played really well on the big points and I didn't."
Despite the seemingly easy win in the semifinals over Halep, Williams was unhappy with her form and went straight to the practice court after her match. She's cruised through the field, dropping no more than four games to any opponent and looking as dominant as she's ever looked on clay.
Prediction: Nadal in two; Williams in two.