The net served as a split screen highlighting disparate storylines in this Barcelona semifinal. While Ernests Gulbis was flat on his back taking a second-set injury timeout, Kei Nishikori sat in a meditative state with an ice towel wrapped around his neck.
Gulbis climbed off the clay to deny seven break points in the set, but a calm Nishikori kept introducing the Latvian to obscure areas of the court. Moving fluidly and stretching the court shrewdly, Nishikori did not face a break point in a 6-2, 6-4 dissection to surge into his seventh career final.
The explosive Gulbis outweighs the slender Japanese by nearly 40 pounds, but Nishikori blunted the bigger man's power with his accurate groundstrokes and piercing return. The Miami semifinalist, who had won 62 percent of his return games this week, earned break points in five of Gulbis' last six service games.
The server permitted just two points through the first four games of this first meeting between the pair. Gulbis' forehand cracked in the fifth game. Sailing a pair of forehands beyond the baseline wrapped around a Nishikori forehand drive winner down the line, Gulbis dropped serve. The No. 9 seed initiates his forehand swing by extending both arms, like a surfer seeking balance as he rises on the board; it's a longer, choppier stroke than his concise two-handed backhand and Nishikori, whose forehand is more compact, targeted that wing to elicit errors.
The 17th-ranked Japanese consolidated at 30 for a 4-2 lead after 21 minutes of play. Nishikori is one of the few players who wears a watch on court; he operated with the precision of a stop watch winning 14 of the final 16 points in breezing through the final stages of the 27-minute opening set.
Timely serving kept Gulbis close in the second set. A stinging serve winner wide and whipping ace saved two of the three break points he faced holding for 2-1. Two games later, Nishikori ratcheted up the pressure again, earning three break points that Gulbis erased. The most electric exchange of the match — a 22-shot rally that featured a stab volley from Nishikori, a couple of net cords and stretched replies from both men — ended with Gulbis netting a backhand drop shot to face a fourth break point. He slammed an ace to fight it off, eventually holding with another ace. Working through that demanding hold for 3-2, Gulbis took an injury timeout for an apparent lower back strain he suffered during that draining rally while Nishikori sat on his courtside bench looking unfazed.
Nishikori plays with a bit more spin and used it effectively to push Gulbis to the perimeter, breaking serve for the third time on a Gulbis forehand error for 5-4. Co-coach and former French Open champion Michael Chang, seated behind the flowers in the corner of the court, watched Nishikori overcome a pair of double faults in the final game as he was pushed to deuce on serve for the only time before sealing an impressive 85-minute victory.
The top three seeds — eight-time champion Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Fabio Fognini — failed to reach the final weekend, while No. 4 seed Nishikori is still standing. The last 11 Barcelona titles have been won by a Spanish man; Nishikori will aim to become the tournament's first Japanese champion when he faces either Nicolas Almagro, who stunned Nadal in rallying from a break down to snap the top seed's 41-match Barcelona winning streak, or 65th-ranked Santiago Giraldo in Sunday's final.