ROME (AFP) - Serbia's Novak Djokovic moved a step closer to defending his Italian Open title after dominating Japan's Kei Nishikori 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 in a one-sided semi-final in Rome on Friday.
Djokovic, who beat Rafael Nadal in last year's final to claim his third trophy in the Italian capital, will now meet David Ferrer in the semis on Saturday when he will be highly fancied to account for the Spaniard.
In their 19 meetings so far, Djokovic has won 14 times. Although Ferrer has won three of their five meetings on clay, his last victory against the Serbian on the surface was during a Davis Cup match in 2009.
Djokovic has won their past two meetings on clay, including a three-set quarter-final in Rome last year.
Djokovic had warned after a hard-fought third round win over Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci on Thursday that his Japanese opponent would be a tough customer.
But after levelling the match at one set apiece, the hard-hitting Nishikori's challenge fizzled out in a third set that saw the fifth seed grow increasingly frustrated at his inability to match Djokovic's clinical game.
Djokovic swung the match in his favour when he broke Nishikori in the fourth game of the third set for a 3-1 lead, taking his advantage to 4-1 with a forehand volley at the net.
Nishikori fought in vain and bowed to the inevitable as Djokovic advanced to the last four for the sixth time in nine appearances.
If Djokovic moves past Ferrer on Saturday, he could face Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in the final.
Earlier, Federer remained on course for a semi-final clash with Spanish rival Nadal after cruising past Tomas Berdych 6-3-, 6-3 in just over an hour.
Federer has only made the final in Rome three times in the past 12 years and been beaten on every occasion - twice by Nadal and once by Felix Mantilla, in 2003.
The 33-year-old Swiss could now meet Nadal, the seven-time champion, in the last four if the Spaniard overcomes Swiss Stan Wawrinka in their semi-final scheduled for 1900 GMT on Friday.
The old foes have met 15 times on clay with Nadal leading Federer 13-2 on his favoured red surface.
Federer admitted it will be a "huge challenge" to overcome the fancied Spaniard.
"Everyone who has played against Nadal knows he's the best mover on clay, on both sides of the court. He's perfected it," said Federer.
"It's always a huge challenge when you play him on clay." But, he added: "Now, I'm starting to find my feet on this surface, which is usually always the case two to three weeks before Roland Garros when, in principle, I find my best form on clay." Russia's Maria Sharapova, the last winner of the women's title in the past five years still in contention in Rome, faces Victoria Azarenka of Belarus later in a bid to secure her place in the last four against Daria Gavrilova, who beat fellow-qualifier Christina McHale 6-2, 6-4.
Earlier, Spanish 10th seed Carla Suarez stunned Petra Kvitova, the fourth seed from the Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-2 to set up a semi-final clash against second seed Simona Halep of Romania, who swept past compatriot Alexandra Dulgheru, a qualifier, 6-1, 6-0.
Defending champion Serena Williams pulled out of the competition on Thursday citing a sore right elbow.