Federer won 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open on Saturday night in a match that got started nearly three hours late because of rain. Wind whipped the court and temperatures plunged six degrees from Friday's high in the mid-20s.
"I had a no-lose mentality," said Federer, who has been sick with a cold during the tournament. "I didn't expect myself to play so well, and this is sometimes when you can pull off the biggest wins of your career. That's where I'm happy I gave myself a chance this week."
No. 3 Federer will play 11th-ranked John Isner in Sunday's final, a rematch of their Davis Cup showdown last month in which Isner won on clay in Switzerland. Top-ranked Victoria Azarenka and No. 2 Maria Sharapova will meet for the women's title.
"Without taking anything away from John in Switzerland, the conditions were extremely tough for both of the players. It was altitude, it was a clay that was virtually unplayable. Every second bounce had a bad bounce in it," Federer said. "So tomorrow hopefully will be a bit more normal."
Isner fired 20 aces, including one at 217-km/h on his fourth match point, to beat top-ranked Novak Djokovic 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5) in the other semifinal.
Nadal's grumpy expression matched his out-of-sorts body language as what he called the "crazy wind" picked up. The cold made Nadal's favoured topspin shots more difficult and made the ball bounce lower than it would in the heat.
"He was better than me, and that's it," Nadal said. "I understand what I had to do too late to have more chances to win the match."
Nadal netted a forehand to give Federer match point when rain drops slickened the lines on the court and the chair umpire halted the action. The players sat in their chairs trying to stay warm.
"I was just really hoping that we don't have to go off court because that would have really been tough on the fans, too," Federer said.
Minutes later, Federer got up and smacked an ace wide to Nadal's forehand side, giving him his first win over Nadal since last year's ATP World Tour finals. The Swiss star still trails their series 18-10.
"It's not like I haven't beaten him in 10 years," Federer said, laughing.
Isner's victory guaranteed he will break into the top 10 for the first time in next week's ATP Tour rankings at No. 10. A victory in the final would move the American to No. 8, passing countryman Mardy Fish who is currently in that spot.
Isner is the first American to beat a world No. 1 since James Blake defeated Federer in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Isner needed nearly three hours to reach his first ATP Masters 1000 series final after 25 tries. He didn't get past the round of 16 in his first 23 events until making his first semifinal in Paris last fall and now the final in the desert.
He threw his arms up and soaked in the applause from the crowd that was squarely behind him throughout the match.
"It's something that you don't experience every day," Isner said. "I was just trying to take it all in."
The six-foot-nine American towered seven inches over Djokovic, giving Isner an easy advantage with his serve-and-volley game. He played a few loose points in the 12th game of the final set, sending a forehand past the baseline on his first match point, and Djokovic held to force the second tiebreaker.
Isner aced Djokovic with a 230-km/h serve to lead 3-2, then hit a forehand winner down the line to go up 4-2.
"I told myself I was going to run around the backhand and hit a forehand, and I was just hoping that he wasn't going to hit the serve up the T. He had been doing that quite a bit, especially on the ad side," Isner said. "I wanted to put a good hit on the ball because if you don't, he just gets you moving. That's why he's the best in the world."
Isner's 231-km/h serve forced Djokovic into a netted return that set up Isner's second match point.
Isner connected on 74 per cent of his first serves, although Djokovic actually won 11 more points than he did in the match. The Serb had little success lobbing to keep Isner off the net as the big guy put away smashes with confidence.
"It's a lot of pressure knowing that somebody serves that well. You need to win your service points, especially when you get to the tiebreak," Djokovic said. "But this time I was unlucky. He didn't wait for it, he went for it."
Isner's height and power had him tabbed as a future American star since he turned pro in 2007, but success has come in fits and starts. He reached his current — and best — career ranking of 11th just last month.
"I knew going into this year that I had the tools and I had the game to be able to at least compete with these guys. I take the court no matter who I'm playing expecting to win and believing to win," Isner said.
There was a win over Andy Roddick at the 2009 U.S. Open, but casual fans may know Isner best for a marathon win over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. They played the longest ever pro match, stretching 11 hours and 5 minutes over three days.
"I've just kept on surprising myself after each year. When I reached the top 50 in the world, that's actually when I actually did believe I could crack the top 10," he said. "I've always been a late bloomer."
Americans Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond defeated Sania Mirza of India and Elena Vesnina of Russia 6-2, 6-3 to win the women's doubles title.