ROME -- A week after top-ranked Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal lost early on an experimental blue surface in Madrid, they both reached the Italian Open semifinals Friday to show they are still top threats on red clay.
Djokovic struggled with his serve in the opening set but eventually found his range to eliminate fifth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-5, 6-1. Five-time champion Nadal posted a 6-4, 7-5 win over seventh-seeded Tomas Berdych.
"In the second set I played one of the best sets on clay this year and this is encouraging for the challenges to come tomorrow and with Roland Garros," Djokovic said. "I am playing and feeling better every match I play."
Nadal was equally pleased.
"I played one of my best match(es) on clay against a difficult opponent," the Spaniard said. "It was a big match and one of the higher quality matches this year, because the level of the opponent is high and he plays with big confidence and I played under pressure all the time.
"I hit a few fantastic shots and this kind of shot comes with confidence," Nadal said.
Djokovic will next face Roger Federer, the winner in Madrid who cruised to a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Italian hope Andreas Seppi in just 53 minutes.
Nadal's opponent in the semifinal will be sixth-seeded David Ferrer, who beat Richard Gasquet 7-6 (4), 6-3.
In women's action, Serena Williams reached the last four after Flavia Pennetta retired with a right wrist problem while trailing 4-0 in the first set. Williams' winning streak is up to 17 matches following titles in Charleston, South Carolina and Madrid. She also has two victories in Fed Cup.
Williams' next opponent will be French Open champion Li Na, who eliminated No. 14 Dominika Cibulkova 6-1, 7-6 (4).
Also on the women's side, defending champion Maria Sharapova beat Venus Williams 6-4, 6-3. She will play No. 12 Angelique Kerber, who defeated Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 7-6 (2), 1-6, 6-1.
While Djokovic has not been dominating the game like last year -- when he had a 43-match winning streak -- he still finds a way to win matches without playing his best.
Serving at 5-5 in the first set, the Serb saved a potentially decisive break point with an authoritative serve and volley. Then he took six straight points.
"I really don't compare with 2011," Djokovic said. "This is a new year and I had great results so far in and I'm playing good in Rome so far. I'm increasing the level as the tournament goes on and this is important."
Down to No. 3 in the rankings this week, Nadal broke in the opening game to take control of the first set, then recovered a break midway through the second before pulling ahead for good. The Spaniard dominated from the baseline, committing just 10 unforced errors and hitting 34 winners against his opponent's 28.
Federer had never lost to Seppi and the 16-time Grand Slam winner took just 19 minutes to win the opening set. Seppi then pleased the partisan crowd by taking the opening game of the second and had two break points in the next game, but Federer stormed back.
The Swiss star closed out the match when Seppi failed to return a serve.
-- The Associated Press