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Federer, Nadal to renew rivalry in Rome final; Serena Williams faces Azarenka

  • 85240534ac003a10320f6a70670049e4.jpg

    Spain's Rafael Nadal serves the ball to Czech Republic's Tomas Berdych during their semi final match at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Saturday, May 18, 2013. Nadal won 6-2, 6-4. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (The Associated Press)

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    Switzerland's Roger Federer returns the ball to France's Benoit Paire during their semi final match at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Saturday, May 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (The Associated Press)

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    Serena Williams, of the United States, returns the ball to Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro during their match at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca) (The Associated Press)

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    Serena Williams, of the United States, returns the ball to Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro during their match at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca) (The Associated Press)

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will renew their rivalry in the Italian Open final Sunday.

In Saturday's semifinals at the Foro Italico, Federer held off a stiff challenge from Frenchman Benoit Paire 7-6 (5), 6-4, and six-time Rome champion Nadal defeated sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-4.

It will mark Nadal's eighth consecutive final since his return from an injury layoff and the first for Federer this year.

Nadal holds a 19-10 edge head to head against Federer, but they have split their last four meetings.

In the women's tournament, Serena Williams is one victory away from winning her fourth consecutive title this year — with the French Open a week away. She will face third-seeded Victoria Azarenka in Sunday's final.

The top-ranked American overcame an early break of her serve to ease past Romanian qualifier Simona Halep 6-3, 6-0, extending her career-best winning run to 23 matches.

Williams is coming off consecutive titles in Miami, Charleston and Madrid.

Azarenka kept her concentration through two rain delays to beat seventh-seeded Sara Errani 6-0, 7-5.

Nadal defeated Berdych a day after the Czech player rallied to beat top-ranked Novak Djokovic. After being pushed to three sets in his previous two matches — against Latvian qualifier Ernests Gulbis and fourth-seeded David Ferrer — Nadal appeared back in his comfort zone against Berdych.

Williams' only title at this clay-court event came in 2002, when she beat Justine Henin in the final. That was also the year she won her only French Open title. Last year in Paris, Williams lost in the opening round of a major tournament for the first time, falling to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France.

Roland Garros starts next Sunday.

"I love the clay. I haven't had many wins at Roland Garros but I do love it. I love to slide," Williams said. "My goal is just to win a match there this year."

Williams has twice won 21 in a row before, although both of those runs came a decade ago, in 2002 and 2003.

Martina Navratilova established the longest women's win run in the Open Era at 74 matches in 1984.

At 31, Williams is back at the top of her game after missing 11 months in 2010 and 2011 with a right foot injury and a pulmonary embolism.

The 64th-ranked Halep entered with an impressive run herself, having beaten former top-10 player Daniela Hantuchova to qualify then 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round. That was followed in succession with wins over fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanksa, 13th-seeded Roberta Vinci and two-time Rome winner Jelena Jankovic.

Solid off both sides and an agile mover, the 2008 French Open girls champion took a set off Williams in their only previous meeting in the second round of Wimbledon two years ago. Halep tested Williams again at the start of this match, angling baseline shots to the corners to force the 15-time Grand Slam winner into errors.

Halep broke to take a 2-1 lead in the first set, but Williams broke right back and cruised from there as she gained the measure of her opponent and began to win the longer rallies.

Williams went directly to the practice court after winning.

"I was unhappy with some things today," she said. "I want to do well here as well as (in Paris)."

Azarenka is in a final for the first time since beating Williams for the title in February at Doha, Qatar. That followed her Australian Open victory. Since then, Azarenka has been slowed by right ankle and left foot injuries.

Errani reached last year's French Open final and was the first Italian semifinalist in this tournament since Raffaella Reggi won the 1985 event in Taranto.

Azarenka did well to take the Foro Italico crowd out of the match early on and never trailed in the second set.

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