MONTE CARLO: Rafael Nadal struggled at the start before setting up half of a dream final at the Monte Carlo Open on Saturday as he posted a 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 victory over Gaston Gaudio.

Spain's second seeded title-holder was awaiting a possible title clash on Sunday against World No.1 Roger Federer as the Swiss took a 5-0 record into his semifinal against Chile's Fernando Gonzalez.

Nadal's booming groundstrokes often came straight back at him, as Gaudio's baseline defence and excellent backhand frustrated the Spaniard in the first set.

Nadal's superior strength kept him in the set, but he sliced into the net to give Gaudio the break for 6-5 and the Argentine closed out a 78-minute set on serve.

But once the teenaged Roland Garros champion got over that early hurdle, he lifted his game to run the Argentine down in two hours and 39 minutes.

Nadal won his 41st consecutive match on clay, his last loss on the surface coming more than a year ago. Only Bjorn Borg, with 46, and Guillermo Vilas, with 53, have won more straight matches on clay.

Gaudio stood 3-2 against the Spaniard, but Nadal has now won the pair's last three matches.

Too superior

The Argentine admitted he was at a loss to match Nadal after the gruelling first set.

``If you want to beat Nadal, you have to play your best the whole match,'' said Gaudio, a first-time semifinalist.

``I could only play (like that) just one set, and that's why I lost.

``After the first set, I think we were so tired that we couldn't run anymore. But he took advantage and deserved to win.''

Not much sweat

Mahesh Bhupathi and his Czech partner Radek Stepanek sailed in to the semifinals of the doubles competition with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over the Swiss pair of Roger Federer and Yves Allegro.

The Indo-Czech pair took little over an hour to seal the match against the singles top seed Federer and Allegro.

Bhupathi and Stepanek will now take on the tournament top seeds Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden and Max Mirnyi of Belarus, who beat the Polish pair of Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski 6-3, 6-4 in a quarterfinal played on Friday. Bhupathi-Stepanek started well, holding on to their serve in the first set and also converted one break point out of the three they got. In contrast, Federer and his partner had a wayward start and committed three double faults. They failed to convert the only break point they earned, losing the set 6-4. The next set saw Federer and Allegro making a comeback but Bhupathi and Stepanek saw off the minor resistance put up by them and built on the momentum gained in the first set, breaking their opponents twice on their way to booking a semifinal berth.

The results: ATP Monte Carlo Masters: Singles (semifinal): Rafael Nadal bt Gaston Gaudio 5-7, 6-1, 6-1. Doubles (quarterfinal): Mahesh Bhupathi/Radek Stepanek bt Roger Federer/Yves Allegro 6-4, 7-5. Agencies

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