INDIAN WELLS, California: While Rafa Nadal continued his impressive comeback to reach the BNP Paribas Open final, Novak Djokovic made a shock exit in Saturday's semi-finals as his winning streak of 22 matches came to an end.
The top-seeded Serb squandered a 3-0 lead in the final set before losing concentration and the match, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to Argentina's Juan Martin Del Potro, on a sweltering afternoon at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Djokovic, a twice champion here, was broken twice in that third set as Del Potro booked his place in today's final against world number five Nadal, who overcame Czech Tomas Berdych 6-4, 7-5 in a semi-final of high quality.
"It happens," a gracious Djokovic told reporters after losing for the first time since his defeat last October to big-serving American Sam Querrey in the second round of the ATP Masters 1000 event in Paris.
"All the credit to my opponent today. He deserved to win because he was more composed in the important moments and he played the right shots."
Seventh seed Del Potro, who won his first and only Grand Slam title at the 2009 US Open before being sidelined for eight months the following year after having wrist surgery, beat Djokovic for only the third time in 11 meetings.
"I was so close to lose because he got the chance to beat me but I got lucky in very important moments, very important points when I made fantastic winners on my forehands," said the 24-year-old from Tandil.
The towering Argentine with the big serve and booming forehand lost a closely contested first set in just under an hour after being broken in the 10th game.
Though he lost serve twice more in the second set, he broke the Serb three times to level the match and then twice more in the third as he played steadier tennis from the baseline, his running forehand often making a telling difference.
Earlier, twice champion Nadal made light of his seven months out last year due to a knee injury as he outplayed the sixth-seeded Czech.
The Spanish left-hander, who returned to the ATP circuit only last month, broke his opponent once to take the opening set, then won a tense second set to improve his record this year to a career-best 16-1.
"For me this is totally unexpected to be in the final," smiled Nadal after winning the last four games to come from 3-5 down in that second set.