VINA DEL MAR, Chile(AFP) - Rafael Nadal looked sharp on Saturday as he booked a finals berth in an ATP South American clay court tournament, his first event back from a seven-month injury absence.
Nadal, seeded number one as a wildcard in the US$410,200 (S$508,000) tournament, needed just 64 minutes to defeat third-seeded Frenchman Jeremy Chardy 6-2, 6-2.
Nadal, eager to get in as many matches as possible, is also slated to contest the doubles final on Sunday.
"I'm really happy with what I've been doing this week," he said. "I have a good feeling on the court. So I cannot ask for anything more. I will try to play better and better every day." Former world number one Nadal, currently ranked fifth, raced to a 4-0 lead before Chardy was finally able to hold serve.
Nadal closed out the opening set after little more than half an hour, pulling Chardy wide with a deep ball to the corner then blasting an overhead winner into the open court to end the rally on set point.
He broke Chardy at love in the third game of the second set to gain the upper hand, then saved three break points in the sixth game to maintain his advantage.
He broke Chardy for a 5-2 lead and took the contest with an ace on his second match point to book a title clash with Argentinian Horacio Zeballos.
"I played well today, better than the days before, which is important," Nadal said. "I won't compare myself to seven months ago, it's just the first week of competition. It's a great feeling to be in a final match after so much time without playing.
"Tomorrow, it will be a tough match against Horacio, who is playing great tennis. I hope to keep enjoying myself like I've been doing during this tournament and that my physical condition remains good." Zeballos, ranked 73rd in the world, reached the second ATP final of his career with a 6-3, 7-6 (7/4) victory over eighth-seeded compatriot Carlos Berlocq.
Zeballos has beaten three straight seeded opponents en route to the title match, which will be his first appearance in a final since he was runner-up at St Petersburg in 2009.
Nadal and Zeballos have met once before. Nadal beat the Argentinian in straight sets in the round of 64 at Roland Garros in 2010 en route to one of the seven French Open titles he counts among his 11 Grand Slam triumphs.
Nadal's 2012 triumph at Roland Garros was his last title. Until this week the Spaniard had not played since a shock second-round exit from Wimbledon in June at the hands of Czech journeyman Lukas Rosol.
A torn tendon and inflammation in his left knee kept Nadal out of the London Olympics and the 2012 US Open.
A virus delayed his return, which he had hoped to make at the Australian Open last month.
Nadal, 26, plans to compete in claycourt events in Brazil and Mexico before playing ATP Masters hardcourt events at Indian Wells and Miami and then heading to Europe for clay events in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome ahead of the French Open.