ROME - Britain's Andy Murray remained on course for a second successive Masters final with Serbia's number one Novak Djokovic after both came through the quarter-finals in Rome on Friday.
Murray, who lost to Djokovic in the final at Madrid last week, had little trouble overcoming Belgian David Goffin 6-1, 7-5 while Djokovic battled past a determined Rafael Nadal to end the Spanish fifth seed's hopes of an eighth title in the Italian capital.
Murray, reaching the last four for only the second time after 2011, will go into Sunday's final if, as expected, he accounts for French lucky loser Lucas Pouille in Saturday's semi-final. Djokovic will meet Kei Nishikori after the Japanese sixth seed swept Austrian Dominic Thiem, who had knocked out Roger Federer, 6-3, 7-5.
Murray lost to Nadal in the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters last month and although defeated by Djokovic last week, he is feeling encouraged with his steady improvement on the surface.
"I'm being rewarded now for the work I've put in on the surface," said Murray.
"I didn't necessarily expect to do well on these surfaces over the past couple of years... but I deserve it, because I've worked hard for it." Between them, Nadal and Djokovic have won the last 11 titles in the Italian capital, the Spaniard claiming his maiden win in 2005 only two years after Andre Agassi's last win in the 'Eternal City'.
But on Sunday it could be Djokovic, the defending champion and tennis's man of the moment, who will be looking to continue his winning run at the Foro Italico after a gutsy 7-5, 7-6 (7/4) win over Nadal.
Finding an "extra gear" proved key as Djokovic took his winning streak over Nadal to seven matches. The last time the Spaniard beat Djokovic was in the final of Roland Garros in 2014.
Admitting he had a slow start to both sets, Djokovic said: "Towards the end of both sets I managed to find an extra gear, to play with a little bit more purpose, and come up with some aggressive play.
"I didn't take the initiative first, I wanted to be more aggressive. But that's easier said than done." Djokovic rallied from a break down in both sets to thwart Nadal in a pulsating two hours and 25 minutes. He has now won 15 straight sets against Nadal since the Spaniard prevailed in Paris two years ago, but Djokovic said it was far from straightforward.
"Winning against Nadal is the ultimate challenge on clay courts and one of the toughest challenges we have in sport," he added.
"I have to be very pleased with the way I handled myself in the big moments today. I won against one of my biggest rivals on his preferred surface." Nadal, meanwhile, was keen to put some gloss on his setback just over a week ahead of his bid for a 10th title at Roland Garros, but he will be keen to remedy the mistakes that led him to lose key points at crucial moments.
Notably, with Nadal leading 5-4 in the second set, Djokovic saved no less than five set points before breaking back on his first break point to level the set 5-5 and then going on to win the tie break.
"Today I was there mentally, hitting good shots. I was very close this afternoon, and that's positive," he said.
"Obviously, when you feel you're so close to taking both sets and you exit the tournament you can't be 100 per cent happy.
"But overall I've competed at the highest level against the best player in the world. That gives me confidence that I'm ready for other things." Murray will now be expected to book his first final in Rome but having watched the 22-year-old Frenchman "kill" David Ferrer in a third-round shock, Murray is taking nothing for granted.
"He beat Goffin last week in Madrid and (Richard) Gasquet in Monte Carlo," said Murray. "This week, he's been a bit fortunate, but he's very good. I don't expect it to be easy."