Preview: Semi-final Saturday

Is an 11th Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters title in the cards for Rafael Nadal? You wouldn’t have been blamed for wondering aloud that prediction before this week in Monte-Carlo, and, given this week’s proceedings, no one will fault you for thinking that now as well.

Nadal has been at his trademark ruthless best in the Principality. The Spaniard, playing in only his second tournament of the season, has yet to drop more than three games in a set, a stretch that includes his 6-0, 6-2 demolition of No. 7 Dominic Thiem, the only man to beat Nadal on clay last year, during Friday’s quarter-final.

The World No. 1 has won 12 straight matches and 32 straight sets on clay since that hiccup against Thiem in the 2017 Internazionali BNL d’Italia quarter-finals in Rome.

“I played so well this afternoon, playing very aggressive in general terms, backhand, forehand, serve. I’m defending well, returning well. I can’t say much more, no? Have been a great day for me, and a very good result against a very difficult rival,” Nadal said.

The 31-year-old didn’t face a break point and won nearly 70 per cent of all points (58/86), including 63 per cent of Thiem’s second-serve offerings (19/30).

“I know it’s difficult to play better than today. Being honest, I have to recognise that,” Nadal said. “But my goal is to rest and to try to wake up [Saturday] again with the same energy and to go on court with the same mentality, try to play close to the way that I played today.”

His semi-final opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, however, is eager for the challenge of facing Nadal, in what will be their 12th FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting. The Bulgarian is through to his first semi-final at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in Monaco, and he’s shown he has the mettle to fight on the red dirt.

Twice Dimitrov has come back from a set down in Monte-Carlo, beating the serve-and-volleying Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the second round and six-time clay-court titlist Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany to reach the quarter-finals.

On Friday, Dimitrov edged good friend and doubles partner David Goffin, a Monte-Carlo semi-finalist last year, 6-4, 7-6(5). Dimitrov had reached the quarter-finals at the Monte-Carlo Country Club two prior times (2013, 2015).

“Today I felt I did a lot of things better than the previous days. I started the match better. I served better. Overall my stats were much better,” Dimitrov said.

But, as the No. 5 player in the ATP Rankings knows well, facing Nadal on the red dirt will be an entirely different challenge. Dimitrov trails in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series 1-10. He beat Nadal during the quarter-finals of the 2016 China Open, played on hard courts. But Dimitrov has lost all three times they’ve played on clay, including at 2013 Monte-Carlo.

“For sure he’s the favourite. Yes, he has a great record. Yes, he’s the best player on clay. That definitely doesn’t discourage me. That excites me to get out on Saturday and play my match, simple as that,” Dimitrov said of Nadal, who’s 66-4 in Monte-Carlo.

“One of the wrong things you can do is really focus on his side. I always said that. Whoever you play, you always got to focus on your end, the way you structure yourself to go out and play, be creative on the court. That’s just how it is. Honestly, I’m happy to be out here, happy to compete against him on such an occasion.”

Saturday’s second semi-final will feature a pair of first-time Monte-Carlo semi-finalists, when Alexander Zverev of Germany meets Japan’s Kei Nishikori. Zverev celebrated his 21st birthday by fighting through the one of the matches of the tournament on Friday, beating Frenchman Richard Gasquet 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 in two hours and 39 minutes.

“I’m just happy that I could turn around the second set. I thought I played probably the best set of this tournament so far on all levels, from the baseline, returning-wise. Obviously the third set was very intense, a lot of tight moments. I feel like in the tightest moments we both played the best tennis,” Zverev said.

The 21-year-old, No. 4 in the ATP Rankings, will try to stay perfect in Masters 1000 semi-finals (3-0) and reach his fourth final at the prestigious level (2017 Rome, Montreal; 2018 Miami). Zverev leads their FedEx ATP Head2Head series 1-0, a 6-3, 6-4 win last year in the Citi Open semi-finals.

“It’s going to be a different match [on Saturday]. Hopefully I can be ready for it, and it will be another good one,” said Zverev, who finished Friday’s play under the lights on Court Rainier III, the main show court.

Nishikori, playing in Monte-Carlo for only the second time (2012), overcame seeing three match points come and go in the second set to hold onto victory against Croatian Marin Cilic 6-4, 6-7(1), 6-3 in the quarter-finals.

The 28-year-old right-hander will play in his first Masters 1000 semi-final in nearly two years, since July 2016 in Toronto.

“This week has been pretty good. It’s my first tournament on clay. I always love to play on clay court… I have been feeling pretty good. I think every match is getting closer and closer,” Nishikori said.

The former No. 4 in the ATP Rankings continues to make steady progress during his comeback from right-wrist surgery. Just two months ago, Nishikori was playing in the ATP Challenger Tour event in Dallas, which he won. But on Saturday, he’ll have the opportunity to make his fourth Masters 1000 final, and his second on clay (2014 Madrid on clay, l. to Nadal; 2016 Miami, 2016 Toronto, l. to Djokovic).

“Happy to be back in the semi-finals here… I feel like I’ve been playing well this week,” he said.

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