Novak Djokovic declared himself ready for the challenge of once again beating Rafael Nadal on clay after he defeated Dominic Thiem on Saturday to reach the Madrid Open final.
Djokovic enhanced his credentials as the greatest threat to Nadal winning a 12th French Open title next month by edging past Thiem 7-6 (7/2), 7-6 (7/4).
Thiem took down Nadal en route to clinching the trophy in Barcelona last month and had also knocked out Roger Federer in the Madrid quarter-finals.
But if Nadal overcomes the talented Stefanos Tsitsipas later on Saturday, it will be the Spaniard and Djokovic in Sunday's final, in what could prove a dress rehearsal for the title match at Roland Garros too.
It would also be the pair's 54th meeting with Djokovic enjoying a 28-25 lead including seven wins on clay.
"With the tennis that I've played today, I feel like I'm ready," Djokovic said. "I'm ready for that challenge, and Rafa is always an ultimate challenge in any tournament on clay."
Thiem ran Djokovic close enough to suggest he will also be a serious contender again in Paris, where the Austrian was runner-up to Nadal last year.
"To beat these players like Novak or Rafa, you need to have this little bit of luck, this momentum going for you, and that was not the case today," Thiem said. "I cannot beat these guys every time, so it's fine."
Since taking a month off after winning the Australian Open, Djokovic has stuttered, enduring early exits in Indian Wells, Miami and then Monte Carlo.
But Thiem found the 31-year-old close to his best, delivering a timely reminder of why he has won the last three Grand Slam titles and will hold all four concurrently by winning his 16th at the French Open.
"It was a very important win for me against one of the best players in the world," said Djokovic, a two-time champion in Madrid.
"He's getting back to his 100 percent again," Thiem said. "The closer it comes to the Grand Slams, the better he'll play and we are pretty close to the French Open."
Djokovic conceded an early break when a short forehand hit the tape but struck back for 3-3, matching a Thiem drop-shot in kind before his opponent patted wide.
Thiem had a break point at 4-4 but it was Djokovic who stormed clear in the tie-break, winning the point of the match with, perhaps, the shot of the tournament.
Scrambling left into his backhand corner, Djokovic not only retrieved Thiem's approach but turned it into a brilliant lob that landed on the opposite baseline.
Disorientated, Thiem hit long to fall 4-1 behind and then again at 6-2 to hand Djokovic the set.
Thiem came again early in the second and broke in the sixth game, only to fail again to consolidate, Djokovic responding immediately for 3-3.
There was nothing in it until Thiem blinked again at 5-5 but this time Djokovic wavered, broken when serving for the match after coughing up a double fault.
Djokovic recovered his nerve in the tie-break, however, earning two match points and converting the first, when a tired Thiem framed a final backhand long.