Eight-time champion Rafael Nadal was taken to the brink by improving Bulgarian prospect Grigor Dimitrov before completing a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 victory on Friday to reach the Monte Carlo Masters semi-finals.
Nadal, who made an unusual number of errors and looked uncomfortable throughout against his 21-year-old opponent, slowly ground him down and fired an ace to clinch his 45th successive victory at the first big claycourt event of the season.
The Spaniard now has a 47-1 win-loss record at the glamorous venue and will next face Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 on the picturesque Center Court to reach the last four for the first time.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic was not bothered by his sprained ankle as he moved past Finland’s Jarkko Nieminen 6-4, 6-3 to clinch a meeting with Fabio Fognini.
The 32nd-ranked Italian made his first significant breakthrough in a Masters Series event by stunning seventh seed Richard Gasquet 7-6, 6-2.
The straight-laced crowd, for once reluctant to support Nadal with Dimitrov threatening to pull off a shock win, stood up to cheer the 34th-ranked Bulgarian as he left the court after a thrilling performance.
Nadal had his share of applause after keeping his bid for a ninth consecutive crown alive by the Mediterranean, where he is coming back from a month-long break after winning three titles including the Indian Wells Masters following seven months out with injury.
“I had a fantastic first set and that’s important. That means my level is here,” Nadal told a news conference.
“I am losing a bit of intensity at some moments. That’s normal after a long time out of competition,” he said.
Tsonga had opened the chilly gray day, with the sun hidden by the clouds and a cool breeze refreshing the sparse crowd, by winning a fierce battle against Wawrinka.
Both players started brightly, with a solid Wawrinka looking on course to repeat the superb third-round performance which knocked out world No. 2 Andy Murray.
However, Tsonga’s aggression paid off with the Swiss-based Frenchman making the most of his break chances to overcome his occasional training partner.
Tsonga saw himself as the underdog ahead of the semi-final with Nadal.
“It’s a incredible challenge. If I win, I’ll be a hero. If I lose, I’ll just go back home like everybody else,” he said.
Italian Fognini, who lives just across the border and said he felt “at home” in Monaco, produced a fine performance with his dropshots and deep spinning forehands troubling France’s Gasquet.
The stands started to empty after he secured his victory and he will need his status as a fans’ favorite when he faces Djokovic, who moved far better on the clay than he did in the first two rounds when he had to recover from a set down.
Last year’s runner-up Djokovic, who picked up a ankle injury while on Davis Cup duty with Serbia less than two weeks ago, was pleased by his physical improvement.
“It’s a great step forward for me,” he said.
“I did not have the feeling that the ankle was bothering me. I was very solid. I elevated the level of my game in the past two matches, definitely,” he said.