Monte Carlo: Rafael Nadal was pushed all the way by Grigor Dimitrov before winning his 45th straight match at the Monte Carlo Masters, reaching the semifinals with a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 victory and staying on course for a rematch of last year's final against Novak Djokovic.
The top-ranked Djokovic had less of a struggle against Jarkko Nieminen, beating the Finnish veteran 6-4, 6-3 and getting through another test on his troublesome right ankle.
Nadal dropped only his third set in his last five tournaments here - the previous ones coming against Andy Murray in the 2011 semifinals and Djokovic in the 2009 final - and he was under pressure at 30-30 in the eighth game of the final set before nailing a crucial serve.
"I know that when you have these tough matches, is decisive to keep fighting. If you keep fighting, you will lose some, but you will have a chance to win a lot of ones," Nadal said. "So is very important (to) win these kinds of matches. That changes your year. I know that. I have experience on that. I always did well (in) these kinds of things."
Nadal returned to action in February after a long spell out to recover from a left-knee injury, and the Spaniard said he is not still at his best - even though he is still on course to reach a fifth straight final since his comeback.
"I didn't play tennis for seven months. I am losing little bit intensity of the match for moments. I need time. I think I need time to play with top rhythm all the match," Nadal said. "So the body in general needs, I don't know, to adapt another time, readapt to the competition, to this high level of intensity."
He is set to get another sharp test on Saturday, against sixth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, while Djokovic takes on the unseeded Fabio Fognini of Italy.
The Serb twisted his ankle two weeks ago while on Davis Cup duty against the United States, but said the injury was improving.
"It was great, very solid from the back of the court and played with a lot of intensity," Djokovic said. "It's a big step for me. It's great, very positive news. I didn't feel the ankle was bothering me today. I was right there on the court. We played a lot of long rallies ... I'm really glad things are going in the right direction."
Nadal sealed the victory on his second match point with an ace, after Dimitrov saved the first one with a forehand winner of astonishing power from the back of the court, made even more spectacular as he was limping.
"He's a great player and he has all the shots. He has everything to be a really, really good player. So depends on him," Nadal said. "I think he has a similar style (to Roger Federer). Everybody can see that."
As a 17-year-old, Dimitrov also took a set off Nadal at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and he thrilled the center court crowd with a superb display of attacking tennis punctuated by exquisite drop shots and ferociously struck winners off both backhand and forehand.
By regularly taking the ball early, Dimitrov unsettled Nadal's rhythm and the seven-time French Open champ was unable to dictate play.
"I felt I was also moving well and I think he was surprised that I was moving well," Dimitrov said. "I actually wanted to play long rallies with him. He made a few mistakes here and there. "
Sensing an upset, the crowd roared when Nadal's two-handed backhand flew into the net and Dimitrov leveled the match.
Dimitrov got the crowd even more on his side with one blistering half-volley down the line early in the third, hitting it with such power and timing that it caught even Nadal off guard.
Nadal's relief was evident when he won. After hitting an ace he threw both hands up in the air and celebrated the win almost like he had won the final.
Djokovic broke with a crosscourt winner to lead 5-4, before securing an early break in the second set to take control.
Tsonga beat Stanislas Wawrinka 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, while Fognini downed seventh-seeded Richard Gasquet of France 7-6 (0), 6-2 to reach his first Masters semi.
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