Novak Djokovic withstood an Andy Murray fightback to continue his magnificent unbeaten run and reach the final of the Rome Masters.
The Serb looked imperious in the opening set but the fourth seed recovered to level a pulsating match before Djokovic won 6-1 3-6 7-6 (7-2).
It extends his winning streak to 38 matches - 36 in 2011.
He will meet top seed Rafael Nadal in Sunday's final after the Spaniard beat Frenchman Richard Gasquet 7-6 6-1.
Murray matched his opponent all the way but had two double faults when he served for the match at 5-4 in the decider.
However, his performance should give him confidence ahead of the upcoming French Open.
"I played my best tennis against the best player in the world at the moment," said Murray.
"It's always very physical against Novak because he moves well. I had chances to win and probably should have done."
Djokovic admitted the physical strain of remaining unbeaten this year is starting to take its toll.
"There's no secret that physically it's catching up with me definitely.
"I've been playing the most matches of any players this year, next to Nadal, but playing at a high intensity and wanting to win every match.
"It's normal and natural that you get tired or exhausted after matches like this, it's nothing new to me."
Djokovic, who had some struggles with his right calf as the match went on, played a superb tie-break and celebrated his hard-fought victory in three hours and two minutes with some exuberant chest pumping.
"Whoever saw the match knows that the winner was not decided until the last point," he said.
"It was a very close match, a fantastic match to be a part of. He was playing really well, serving really well, especially in the second set.
"He put a lot of pressure on my service games, he wasn't making a lot of unforced errors, I had to earn my points."
The world number two had exuded confidence in the tournament, thanks to his tremendous run of form, and he showed his intentions when he held serve to love in the opening game.
Murray, who was hoping to reach his first professional clay-court final on Sunday, his 24th birthday, struggled in his opening service game and was forced to save two break points but he was unable to save a third when he netted a forehand.
The Scot gave himself a glimmer of hope when he broke straight back in the third game after a series of long rallies.
But his form dipped in the set after that and he was unable to win another game in the set as Djokovic dominated matters.
Murray made a more confident start to the second set and the first five games went with serve as the Scot found greater consistency and upped his winners count.
He got the chance he needed in the sixth game when he earned a break point on the Serb's serve and it was Djokovic who cracked first, sending a forehand long.
Murray had to work hard to hold serve and make it 5-2 and with Djokovic serving to stay in the set, he found himself 30-0 down and a missed drive volley gave Murray two set points.
Djokovic saved both, leaving Murray to serve out for the set - but the Scot did the job and levelled the match with a rasping cross-court backhand winner.
Djokovic earned the first opportunity of the deciding set thanks to a delightful lob that Murray failed to deal with. He then followed up with a fantastic return of serve and a Murray error which put him 3-1 ahead.
Murray showed greater aggression to break straight back and in the following game, Djokovic found himself in all sorts of trouble with two errors and a double fault which left him 0-40 down.
It was the chance Murray had been waiting for and under pressure a Djokovic forehand went wide to put the Scot 4-3 up.
The Serb was not finished and went on the offensive to get three break points on the Murray serve. Murray saved the first two but Djokovic finished it up with a forehand volley to level the set at 4-4.
With the tension rising, Djokovic seemed to have trouble with his right calf and Murray got his opponent to work and earned a first break point that the Serb saved, but Murray capitalised on a second serve to earn a second one and when Djokovic made an unforced error on his backhand, it gave Murray the game.
It left Murray serving for the match but he looked nervy and Djokovic kept calm. A couple of Murray double faults left the players tied at 5-5 before Djokovic recovered from 0-30 down to end a run of three service breaks and edge ahead 6-5.
Under pressure to stay in the match, Murray played some superb volleys to hold serve and set up a tie-break but the Serb proved too good, setting up match point with a delightful lob and continuing his winning streak with a drop shot that Murray was unable to cope with.
"Obviously it's a great run," said Murray afterwards. "I'm just disappointed with myself that I should have ended it tonight."