Top seed Juan Martin del Potro will try to hold off the red-hot Milos Raonic for the Rakuten Open title after edging Nicolas Almagro in the semifinals on Saturday.
Del Potro, who was the 2008 runner-up and is appearing at the tournament for the sixth time, squeezed past No. 6 seed Almagro 7-6 (9-7), 7-6 (7-1) to reach Sunday’s showpiece at Ariake Colosseum.
In the first semifinal, Raonic took his winning streak to eight matches as the third seed returned to the final with a straight-sets victory over Ivan Dodig.
Raonic, who lost to Kei Nishikori in last year’s final, defeated Dodig 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 for the first time to reach back-to-back finals after winning last week’s Thailand Open.
World No. 7 del Potro and 11th-ranked Raonic have met once before, in Montreal this August, when the 22-year-old Raonic won in two sets.
“In the final, anything can happen,” del Potro said. “Milos is playing really well. He already won the tournament last week, beating (Tomas) Berdych in the final, and he’s here in another final of a big tournament.
“I know his game, and it’s tough to break his serve. But as I said, anything can happen in the final and maybe I need to play better than today for me to have a chance.”
He added: “It will be an interesting match. I don’t know who the favorite is, but it’s going to be a really difficult Open for me.”
Raonic has yet to drop a set at this tournament, and faced his first break point here against Dodig, which he promptly saved. The big-serving Canadian fired a dozen aces against the unseeded Croat and leads the tournament with a total of 64.
During his hot streak, Raonic has held serve in a phenomenal 99 of 101 games.
“For me, it’s going to be about taking care of my serve primarily, and after that, trying to dictate and play on my terms as much as possible,” said Raonic, who also won in San Jose this season.
While Almagro, who knocked off defending champion and hometown favorite Nishikori in the quarterfinals, certainly made del Potro work, the Argentine never let the match slip away.
After allowing del Potro to break him in the opening game, Almagro broke back to take a 3-2 lead.
In the tiebreak, he saved set point before pushing del Potro to the brink at 7-6 — only for del Potro to win the next three points and take the set.
Both held serve in the second set, yet del Potro owned the tiebreak, reeling off four consecutive points from 3-1 to advance to his 22nd career final.
“We hit the ball so hard,” del Potro said. “Almagro hit amazing shots and I came back with some amazing shots. I played really good in the tiebreak and the important matches.”
“These kind of matches, just one or two points can be the difference.”
Raonic and the resilient Dodig refused to be broken in the first set, trading game for game to invite the tiebreak. Dodig, who also had not dropped a set, moved out to a 4-1 lead in the tiebreak, appearing to have finally gotten to Raonic.
But Raonic turned up his game, winning six unanswered points to take the set and converting set point with one of his blazing aces.
The first set lasted 54 minutes, but Raonic did not even need half an hour to win the second. He broke Dodig twice to capture the last five games, finishing the match with three straight aces to punch his ticket to the final.
“After I got that first set — I was getting closer and closer on his service game — it just allowed me a little bit of freedom,” Raonic said.
“Plus, a few sloppy points from him on the first game I broke gave me a little bit of a margin. I started swinging more and more freely after that.”
Nadal set to regain No. 1
Rafael Nadal is guaranteed to supplant Novak Djokovic atop the rankings after advancing to the final of the China Open on Saturday when Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic retired due to injury.
The Spaniard was a break up at 4-2 in the opening set of their semifinal match when Berdych retired soon after taking an injury timeout.
Nadal, who improved to 27-0 on hard courts this season, will return to the top ranking for the first time since July 2011. Djokovic has been No. 1 for 101 weeks.
“(This is) a great year, one of the best years of my career without any doubt,” Nadal said. “Sure it is special to be back to the top position of the rankings after more than a half year without playing tennis.”
Nadal had been assured of reclaiming the top spot if he reached the final in Beijing or Djokovic failed to defend his title.
The Serbian plays Richard Gasquet of France in the other semifinal late Saturday.
Nadal, the reigning French and U.S. Open champion, has had a dominant year since returning in February from a seven-month layoff due to a left knee injury. He has won 10 titles and reached 12 finals overall, compiling an ATP Tour-best record of 65-3 on the season.
He hasn’t lost a match since falling in the opening round at Wimbledon to 135th-ranked Steve Darcis of Belgium in June.
In the women’s semifinals, top-ranked Serena Williams will play Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland and Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic takes on Jelena Jankovic of Serbia.