Matteo Berrettini edged into his first Masters 1000 final at the Mutua Madrid Open, dispatching surging clay-court star Casper Ruud, 6-4, 6-4 to book a championship match against 2018 champion Alexander Zverev.

"It's definitely a really good feeling," he said after the match. "It's different in a way. When you're about to play, you're just thinking that you're playing a final. Obviously I was in the semis in US Open, but everything is different."

The former US Open semifinalist is slowly rediscovering his 2019 form on the European red clay, and won an eighth straight match—and his first over Ruud on clay in three attempts—after 81 minutes on Manolo Santana Stadium.

Berrettini ended the match with an impressive 24 winners to 15 unforced errors and, more astoundingly, ended the match with the loss of just eight points on serve in two sets.

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Matteo Berrettini bounces Ruud, plays Zverev for first Masters 1000

Matteo Berrettini bounces Ruud, plays Zverev for first Masters 1000

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The 25-year-old Italian finished the pre-pandemic season ranked at a career-high of No. 8 after backing up his breakout run in Flushing Meadows with a maiden Masters 1000 semifinal in Shanghai, and punctuated the year with a debut at the ATP Finals. Barring a quarterfinal finish in Rome, 2020 was a far more ordinary season despite second straight Top 10 finish.

Berrettini nonetheless began 2021 on a brighter note with a runner-up finish for Italy at the ATP Cup and recovered from an abdominal injury that took him out of the Australian Open to win his fourth career title last week in Belgrade.

"I have to say that since I got in Australia and I started the quarantine and the practice and stuff, with my coach we said, 'Okay, I'm playing good, I'm good. Sometimes is a matter of, like, mental performance, I don't know, or just that your confidence is building up.'

"That's why I was so upset when I got injured. I was like,' Okay, now again I have to come back and get to that level again? It's going to take time.' I was upset."

Making his main draw debut at the Caja Mágica, the Italian has continued that momentum with aplomb, dropping just one set en route to the semis—and it was in that match that he won the final 11 games against No. 16 seed Cristian Garin.

Ruud has been even more dominant on the red dirt dating back to last fall, when he reached his first Masters 1000 in Rome, and has since matched that result in Monte Carlo and Madrid, where he was yet to drop serve through four wins over the likes of Felix Auger-Aliassime and No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Matteo Berrettini bounces Ruud, plays Zverev for first Masters 1000

Matteo Berrettini bounces Ruud, plays Zverev for first Masters 1000

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The first set ultimately came down to one break of serve, as the eighth-seeded Berrettini engineered his first of the set on the Norwegian’s serve, and converted it as Ruud missed on a backhand pass before serving the set out to love.

"I think my return today was really a high level. We've played each other already for the fourth time, so I kind of know him in the same way I think he knows me. I didn't expect this performance. You step in the court and you say, 'Okay, I know I can return,' but then you don't know how well you're going to do that."

Berrettini continued to clean up on serve, dropping just three points in the second set as he moved ahead 5-3 with another mid-set break.

"The key I think today was putting pressure on his serve, first serve and second serve. I was always trying to get the momentum and attacking even his first serve. I know that he likes to have time, run around the forehand. I tried to do that. It work out pretty well. I'm happy for that."

Ruud made a brave last stand, saving a match point on his own serve, but couldn’t make in-roads on return as Berrettini rolled to triple match point—pegging the unseeded 22-year-old into a backhand error.

One last big serve put him over the finish line and the Italian will aim to win the biggest title of his career over Zverev, whom he has beaten just once in three total meetings. Their most recent clay-court clash went to the Italian, who won in straight sets at home in Rome.

"I remember that it was tough to return," he said of their last match in Shanghai. "I remember he was serving really well. The times that we played each other in Rome, obviously they were different conditions, I remember in Shanghai I think the roof was closed, the court was very fast, and obviously in Rome it was different. I mean, I remember there was one break each set. I guess he just served better than me and I got broken twice.

"Tomorrow I think it's kind of the same. I saw him, he's playing really good. He's solid. He moves well. For his height, he's really good. He serves well. I mean, he's in the final. He beat Rafa and Dominic, probably the best players on clay."

Matteo Berrettini bounces Ruud, plays Zverev for first Masters 1000

Matteo Berrettini bounces Ruud, plays Zverev for first Masters 1000