INDIAN WELLS, March 21- At 31, Ivan Ljubicic says he's playing better than ever, and he showed it Saturday with a victory over Rafael Nadal for a berth in the Indian Wells Masters 1000 final."It was great, great match," former world number three Ljubicic said of his 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7/1) triumph over the world number three. "Probably the best I’ve ever played in my career."
It came one day after his 31st birthday, and Ljubicic more than kept pace with 23-year-old Nadal, the defending champion who was playing his first tournament since a knee injury forced him out of the Australian Open.
Ljubicic displayed the form that saw him rise to number three in 2006, especially in a third-set tiebreaker that he called "absolutely perfect."
"I knew I had to be aggressive," said Ljubicic, who gave leap of celebration when his forehand winner landed on match point. "I knew I had to go for my shots, but I didn’t expect that everything would go in. But it did happen."
Ljubicic denied Nadal a shot at a third title in four years. More importantly he gave himself another shot at a Masters 1000 title, something that eluded him when he reached the finals in three of the prestigious events in 2005 and 2006.
"I hope this one, it’s going to be finally the victory," said Ljubicic, whose path to the final included a fourth-round victory over world number two Novak Djokovic.
In Sunday’s final he’ll face seventh-seeded American Andy Roddick, a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 winner over sixth-seeded Swede Robin Soderling.
US Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark and former world number one Jelena Jankovic of Serbia will play for the women’s title on Sunday.
Ljubicic, now ranked 26th in the world, halted a five-match skid against Nadal that included defeats last year in the quarter-finals of Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo and Shanghai.
He fired 17 aces – taking his total for the tournament to 66. But he said aces were just part of the story on his serve.
"I was not going for the biggest serves all the time," he said. "I knew that slow serve to his backhand would give him a lot of trouble, and that’s exactly what happened."
The two had traded breaks to open the third set, Nadal missing with two forehands to give up the first game and Ljubicic double-faulting on break point to surrender the next.
Ljubicic admitted he was nervous to start the third, but there was no sign of it by the time he took a 2-1 lead in the tiebreaker with a 222 kilometres per hour (138 mph) ace.
A backhand winner put him 3-1 up, and three Nadal miscues saw the Spaniard in a 6-1 hole that Ljubicic gave him no chance to climb out of.
Ljubicic had looked sluggish as he surrendered breaks in the first and last games of the opening set and said he struggled with the unexpected wind.
"I just felt like if I find the rhythm of the return then I can have the match, and that’s exactly what happened."
After saving four break points in the sixth game of the second set, Ljubicic seemed energized, and he got the break he needed to extend the match when Nadal double-faulted on break point in the ninth game.
Roddick and Soderling both fought frustration as momentum shifted in their battle.
Roddick broke his racquet on the ground after dropping his serve in the eighth game of the second set, leaving Soderling to serve for the set at 5-3. The Swede made the most of it with a love game, then the two traded breaks early in the third before Roddick earned the decisive break for a 4-2 lead that he never relinquished.
Roddick said he was conscious of Soderling’s pressure on his serve, but he was able to apply the same to the Swede.
"I knew I was returning real well, so I thought this might be the rare occasion where that would be the thing that won it for me," Roddick said.
Even after he won the second set, Soderling said he didn’t feel he was playing great.
"He played a little bit better than me," Soderling said. "I think he served a little bit better, and then I made a few more unforced errors. That’s about it."