Rafael Nadal was pushed all the way by Grigor Dimitrov before winning his 45th straight match at the Monte Carlo Masters, reaching the semifinals with a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 victory and staying on course for a rematch of last year's final against Novak Djokovic.
The top-ranked Djokovic had less of a struggle against Jarkko Nieminen, beating the Finnish veteran 6-4, 6-3 and getting through another test on his troublesome right ankle. The Serb twisted it two weeks ago while on Davis Cup duty against the United States.
Nadal dropped only his third set in his last five tournaments here - the previous ones coming against Andy Murray in the 2011 semifinals and Djokovic in the 2009 final - and he was under pressure at 30-30 in the eighth game of the final set before nailing a crucial serve.
"I know that when you have these tough matches, is decisive to keep fighting. If you keep fighting, you will lose some, but you will have a chance to win a lot of ones"
"I know that when you have these tough matches, is decisive to keep fighting. If you keep fighting, you will lose some, but you will have a chance to win a lot of ones," Nadal said.
"So is very important (to) win these kinds of matches. That changes your year. I know that. I have experience on that. I always did well (in) these kinds of things.''
Nadal returned to action in February after a long spell out to recover from a left-knee injury, and the Spaniard said he is not still at his best - even though he is still on course to reach a fifth straight final since his comeback.
"I didn't play tennis for seven months. I am losing little bit intensity of the match for moments. I need time. I think I need time to play with top rhythm all the match," Nadal said.
"So the body in general needs, I don't know, to adapt another time, readapt to the competition, to this high level of intensity."
He is set to get another sharp test on Saturday, against sixth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France.
Tsonga beat Stanislas Wawrinka 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, while the unseeded Fabio Fognini of Italy advanced by beating seventh-seeded Richard Gasquet of France 7-6 (0), 6-2.
"This is one of my best performances ever, (my) first semifinal in Masters 1000,'' said Fognini, who has never beaten Djokovic.
"I have another opportunity to play with a great player here in the center court."
Djokovic looked a little rusty, dropping his serve three times, although he broke Nieminen five times. Djokovic broke with a crosscourt winner to lead 5-4, before securing an early break in the second set to take control.