By Mark Lamport-Stokes
INDIAN WELLS, California (Reuters) - Looking as though he had never been away, Rafa Nadal gave the tennis world a stark reminder of what they had missed for seventh months last year with a superb display at the BNP Paribas Open on Saturday.
In only his fourth match on hard courts since he returned to the ATP circuit last month after being sidelined with a left knee injury, the Spanish left-hander overcame sixth-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych 6-4 7-5 in the semi-finals at Indian Wells.
He broke the Czech once to take the opening set, then won a tense second set to improve his record this year to a career-best 16-1, having won two ATP titles on the clay of South America last month.
Nadal, who had thumped long-time rival Roger Federer 6-4 6-2 in the last eight, looked every inch like his former self, hitting crisp and deep ground strokes to keep Berdych under continual pressure and occasionally unleashing his trademark inside-out forehand crosscourt winner.
"When you are out for a long period of time, is difficult to come back and to understand how to win the points another time, how to manage the important situations," Nadal told reporters after sealing victory in one hour 43 minutes.
"Victories like today, like the other day, help you a lot for the confidence and to remember, you know, all the things that you have to do in every moment."
While 11-times grand slam champion Nadal may have played down his form on a sizzling hot afternoon at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden where temperatures climbed into the early nineties, Berdych was suitably impressed.
Asked if the Spaniard had looked like the Rafa of old with his movement about the court, Berdych replied: "I think so. He was moving quite well.
"Maybe he will say something different because it's him, his body, and he has a feeling for that, but I think he looks strong again.
"I guess he makes the right decision that once he decides to come back he's gonna be strong again to play. It just shows how great a player he is."
With a near-capacity crowd watching intently, the opening set went with serve until the seventh game when Berdych double faulted, hit a forehand long and dumped a forehand into the net to trail 0-40.
Though the Czech saved the first two break points on forehand errors by fifth seed Nadal, he lost the game on the third when he blasted a forehand wide as he hungrily eyed a winner down the line.
The Spaniard served out to take the set in 42 minutes, applying the finishing touch with a well-placed 119 mph service winner that Berdych was unable to return. It was the first set the Czech had lost during the tournament.
Both players held serve until the eighth game of the second set when Nadal, despite getting a favourable net cord bounce as he tried to save his first break point of the match, double-faulted to trail 3-5.
However, the Spaniard immediately broke back, after Berdych hit a forehand long, before holding to level the score at 5-5.
"I play my best game of the match at 3-5, playing very aggressive, having two very, very good points with my forehand down the line," Nadal said. "That was very important, no?"
Nadal then broke the Czech for a third time in the 11th, squandering his first break point at 30-40 but taking advantage of the second when Berdych mistimed an overhead as he gazed up into the sun, the ball careening off his racket and bouncing well beyond the baseline.
The tension mounted as Nadal served for the match in the 12th game, the Spaniard coming back from 0-30 down and saving three break points before he sealed victory on his second match point when Berdych pushed a backhand wide.
Nadal, who has his left knee taped up throughout the tournament, leaped in delight with both arms raised in celebration as he advanced to the final at Indian Wells for a fourth time.
"Even if I had a lot of success the last weeks for example, today I was very nervous at the end of the match to close the match," Nadal said. "I was lucky that my serve worked amazing in the last game in important moments."
The Spaniard will take on seventh-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina in Sunday's final where he is widely expected to win, but again he played down his expectations.
"Any result will be a fantastic week for me, a fantastic tournament," Nadal smiled.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by John O'Brien)