© Mike Frey/Shanghai Rolex Masters

Rafael Nadal digs deep to beat Grigor Dimitrov on Friday for a place in the Shanghai Rolex Masters semi-finals.

Nadal Beats Dimitrov In High-Quality Encounter

Spaniard now faces Cilic, who is closing in on Nitto ATP Finals berth

Rafael Nadal kept alive his hopes of clinching a 31st ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophy on Friday at the Shanghai Rolex Masters in a resurgent season that could end with the Spanish superstar becoming year-end No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings for a fourth time (also 2008, 2010, 2013).

The World No. 1 defeated sixth-seeded Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov for the second time in as many weeks 6-4, 6-7(4), 6-3 for a place in the semi-finals against fourth seed Marin Cilic of Croatia, who has not dropped a set all week at the Qi Zhong Stadium.

“It was a very tough match,” said Nadal. “I think both of us, we played at a very high level of tennis. The conditions, of course, have been different today than my two previous matches. I think [it was] a great battle between two players who are playing all the time very focused, very intense points all the time. I think both of us served very well during the whole match, so yeah, it was decided on just a few balls, and anything can happen.”

When asked about playing Cilic, Nadal said, “He always is very dangerous opponent, and I think this surface, this court helps him. It’s a very fast court. He's able to go for the shots from the baseline. It will be a tough one. I know that I need to be very focused with my serve again, and I need to play aggressive and don't let him play from comfortable positions. If not, I will be almost dead because he is going to go for the shots."

Nadal, who is currently riding a 15-match winning streak, improved to an ATP World Tour-best 64-9 match record in 2017 and to 870 career match wins — which is tied No. 6 in the Open Era list with American Andre Agassi. Jimmy Connors (1,256), Roger Federer (1,121 — ahead of Friday’s quarter-final), Ivan Lendl (1,068), Guillermo Vilas (929) and John McEnroe (877) make up the Top 5 match wins leaders in the Open Era (since April 1968).

In a high-quality encounter, which went to a third set for the seventh time in 11 meetings, the athleticism and intensity of both 2009 runner-up Nadal and Dimitrov ensured that the two-hour and 32 minute battle was one of the matches of the 2017 ATP World Tour season.

Nadal looked set to record his 10th victory over Dimitrov in straight sets, when he led the Bulgarian by a set and 4/2 in the tie-break. But Dimitrov recovered to win five straight points and in the deciding set at 2-2, courtesy of two backhand passing shots, had Nadal serving, on the ropes, at break point. However, the Spaniard recovered with a fine, low backhand crosscourt winner, then in the next game capitalised on two doubles faults and three forehand errors from Dimitrov to take a 4-2 lead.

Nadal also beat Dimitrov last week in the China Open semi-finals 6-3, 4-6, 6-1.

As a result of Cilic’s win over Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas earlier on Friday, the Croatian overtakes Dimitrov at No. 5 in the Emirates ATP Race To London. Cilic now has 3,535 points as he looks to clinch a third qualification to the Nitto ATP Finals (also 2014, 2016) by beating Nadal in the semi-finals.

"I'm very confident [I will qualify]," said Cilic. "I mean, mathematically there is obviously chances that I can be bumped out if I don't win, for example, tomorrow, but overall I'm playing well. And also, the guys behind me haven't performed as well in these past few weeks. So I'm quite confident that I'm going to be there."

Dimitrov, who is on 3,455 points in sixth place and seeking his first qualification to the season finale, to be held at The O2 in London from 12-19 November, is now 40-17 on the year. He has won three ATP World Tour titles.

Cilic has advanced to the semi-finals without dropping a set, having improved to 39-16 on the year after he beat Ramos-Vinolas 6-3, 6-4 in 81 minutes. Cilic was broken for the first time in his 29th service game of the week at 3-3 in the second set by Ramos-Vinolas.

Nadal leads Cilic 4-1 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series, including victories in their past four meetings.

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