Three-time former champion Rafael Nadal is through to the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open after surviving an early onslaught to defeat Kei Nishikori 6-4, 6-3 on Friday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
The Spaniard will face World No. 1 Novak Djokovic for a place in the final of the first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament of the season.
"I had a tough draw from the beginning," said Nadal, who saved match point in his fourth-round win over Alexander Zverev. "To be able to be where I am today, in the semifinals, and especially with the victory of today against a top, top player, that's something very important for my confidence. It's very important to believe in myself too, and winning the way that I did.
"Let's try my best tomorrow. Let's keep playing with the same energy. And we'll see what's going on. I know Novak is playing unbelievable, so it's difficult. But I am here to keep enjoying, keep trying my best, and keep playing with the right energy."
The 29-year-old Nadal is bidding to reach the final in Indian Wells for the fifth time. Winner of 27 Masters 1000 crowns, Nadal lifted the trophy at the BNP Paribas Open in 2007 (d. Djokovic), 2009 (d. Murray) and 2013 (d. Del Potro); he also finished runner-up to Djokovic in 2011.
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The left-hander was under pressure early from the fifth-seeded Nishikori, who captured his 11th ATP World Tour title in Memphis last month (d. Fritz). The Japanese star broke early and had points for a 4-1 double-break lead, before Nadal found his groove.
The Manacor native fought back to level at 3-3 and from 4-4 reeled off five straight games to steal the opener and take a commanding lead in the second set. Nadal had a point for 4-0, before Nishikori halted his momentum. After getting a foothold in the set, Nishikori then brought himself back into contention with a break in the seventh game. But Nadal regained his advantage in the following game and served out victory in one hour and 33 minutes.
Tellingly, fourth seed Nadal landed 88 per cent of his first serves and won 46 per cent of his return points, ultimately winning 12 points more than Nishikori.
"When I got the break back I felt it was a very, very important moment," said Nadal, reflecting on the first set. "I feel strong mentally. I feel I have the right energy. When that happens, the rest is a little bit less difficult.
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"I am able to fight for every ball. I am able to keep going during the whole match, believe in myself again, and that makes me play with more energy, less nerves. That's so important for me. It's the way I have played during all my career, and that gives me a lot. And this week is being very, very positive for me. Very important."
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"I think the beginning I was stepping in a little more and was hitting using my forehand," said Nishikori. "I was hitting really good my serve, first serve, second serve, and maybe he started hitting more deep. I started backing up a little more.
"I think everything changed between that first set. I thought I had a couple of chances in the first set and second set, too, but some unforced errors. He played good tennis."