• ATP Tour

Nadal survives Monaco examination from 'baby Federer'

ESPN staff
April 19, 2013
Rafael Nadal has won 41 consecutive clay-court quarter-finals © Getty Images

Rafael Nadal has built a career on his high profile rivalry with Roger Federer, but Friday may just have opened a new chapter against 'baby Federer' Grigor Dimitrov after he edged into the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters.

Nadal, seeking a ninth consecutive title at the event, was faced with the youngest player left in the draw on Court Central. Dimitrov strokes his backhand and fizzes his forehand in a manner akin to Swiss master Federer, and he caused Nadal all manner of problems in an eventual 6-2 2-6 6-4 defeat.

When the Bulgarian goes on to win multiple grand slam titles - as he surely will do - this match might just prove his launchpad despite the loss. Dimitrov's talent has been well known for a while, but the manner in which he imposed himself on Nadal - on Nadal's own adopted court - was breathtaking.

Statistically, Dimitrov should have been out of the match before it had even started. Nadal had won his last 44 matches in Monaco, was riding a 40-match unbeaten streak in clay-court quarter-finals, and the Spaniard had won the pair's only other encounter.

By contrast, 21-year-old Dimitrov was featuring in his maiden Masters 1000 quarter-final tie. But after a nervy start, it almost proved his coming-out party.

Nadal broke as early as the third game when his opponent sent a forehand long, and either side of that moment he enjoyed two love service holds. Another unforced error - this time into the net from Dimitrov - then handed Nadal an imposing 4-1 lead.

Having failed to win a point on the Nadal serve, Dimitrov suddenly raced to 0-40 in the next game, taking his third chance to claim a break back at 2-4.

However, Nadal remains a force on clay - sliding into forehand winners and racing around the baseline to chase lost causes - and a third break for the former world No. 1 allowed him to serve for the set, which he did with the minimum of fuss.

A procession was expected, but the match tilted Dimitrov's way in the second when, at the second time of asking, he forced Nadal to dump the ball into the net for a 4-2 lead. Nadal had an immediate chance to hit back but, at 0-30 on the Dimitrov delivery, he netted an easy backhand to fall to 2-5.

The serve was a great source of Nadal's problems, allied to Dimitrov's impressive ability to alter his length, and the Bulgarian broke again to level the match at 1-1 when Nadal dragged a backhand into the net.

All the pressure in the third set came from Dimitrov, who regularly got to 30-30 on the Nadal delivery as he sliced cleverly and matched power with power. His ability to force the Spaniard onto the back foot was a rare sight to behold, and Nadal became visibly frustrated as he toiled to get to 4-4.

However, there are few players better at upping their level when it truly matters, and Nadal turned the heat on Dimitrov in game nine, finding a break that decided the match when the youngster clipped the net. In many ways the better player on the day lost, but the experience Dimitrov takes away might just spark a glittering career.

Nadal will play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the last-four after the French No. 6 seed beat Andy Murray's conqueror Stanislas Wawrinka 2-6 6-3 6-4. Victory ends Tsonga's run of six straight losses in Masters 1000 quarter-final ties.

Wawrinka looked set to repeat his Thursday blitzing of Andy Murray when he stormed to the first set. The Swiss created more break chances in each of the first two sets, but he faded after Tsonga levelled the match, allowing the Frenchman to advance after over two hours on court.

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