Simona Halep needed a last-gasp effort to pull off a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Garbine Muguruza and reach a third career final at the Rome Masters on Sunday.

The top seed will wait for a Monday afternoon opponent in the title match as Czechs Market Vondrousova and Foro Italico holder Karolina Pliskova face off later.

Top seed Halep had a fight on her hands from Spain’s double Grand Slam champion Muguruza, who was bidding to reach only the second clay final of her career. 

Her first set a high standard when she won the French Open four years ago.

The Spaniard double-faulted on four break points – including match point as she lost serve to end the encounter. 

Romania’s Halep, beaten in back-to-back Rome finals by Elina Svitolina in 2017 and 2018, has now won her last 13 matches.

She delayed her return to tennis amid the COVID-19 pandemic, winning Prague last month to follow up on a Dubai trophy from February before the virus tennis lockdown.

Rome organisers managed to allow 1,000 ticketholders into the grounds to sit socially distanced in the Centrale showcourt after receiving late permission form local government.

Muguruza had defeated Halep in their last meeting, an Australian Open semi-final.

“She’s a very, very difficult player and good player,” Halep said. “It’s always agood vibe and good feeling when I win against her.

“I know I had so many chances to maybe finish it a little bit faster and easier, but she doesn’t give up. Credit to her that she fought till the end.

“I’m happy that I was a little bit stronger in the end and I could be more aggressive when I needed to.”

Muguruza squared the match at a set apiece by winning the last four games of the second and trailed Halep 5-1 in the third.

But the momentum briefly shifted, with the Spaniard breaking Halep’s next pair of serve to climb to 4-5.

Halep was able to bring proceedings to an end with a seventh break of Muguruza to earn victory in two and a quarter hours.

Muguruza appeared to be struggling with her left thigh or hip injury which was affecting her serve and could have accounted for her eight double-faults.

“My body was already this morning feeling so-so. Today I had to run, as always on clay court, and at the beginning of the match I already felt some pain in my left thigh.

“Physically today I struggled. I think that’s the fourth match or fifth match in short days

“Even though I wasn’t in my best, I’m pretty happy with my performance and my fighting spirit.”