By Paul Virgo
ROME (Reuters) - Third seed Rafael Nadal survived a fright to reach the Rome Masters final with a 6-4 3-6 6-4 win after Latvian Ernests Gulbis had exposed chinks in the clay specialist's armor on Saturday.
Nadal next meets fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, who took advantage of Fernando Verdasco's capitulation to beat his exhausted compatriot 7-5 6-3.
Former world number one Nadal looked to have regained his old dominance on red dirt after an injury-hit 2009, cruising into the last four here after winning the Monte Carlo Masters with ease two weeks ago.
The unseeded Gulbis made a poor start, double faulting and hitting a backhand wide to surrender serve in the first game.
He overcome his nerves though and Nadal had to save two break points before eventually taking the set.
The Latvian could have had his opponent under even more pressure with his booming serves and forehands if he had not fluffed a number of chances, including a set point he netted on Nadal's serve.
In the final set the Spaniard was feeling the heat and failed to put away break points in the sixth and eighth games.
Ferrer, the 13th seed, knocked out world number five Andy Murray on his way to the last four but appeared to be outgunned by Verdasco early in the other semi.
However, his concentration snapped and he lost the next eight games to go a set and 2-0 down in the second.
Verdasco, who needed more than three hours to oust world number two Novak Djokovic on Friday, staged a brief comeback by breaking Ferrer after being jeered by the crowd for his wild shots.
He then surrendered serve again and eventually went out, exhausted as he tried to reach his third consecutive final after Barcelona and defeat by Nadal in Monte Carlo.
"I was tired, not just after 5-1, ever since I woke up," Verdasco told a news conference. "He broke me for the first time, got confidence, saw that I was tired and the match changed completely.
"When your legs don't go like you want against a player like this, your chances are very small."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)