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Nadal says he needs to peak to beat Dimitrov in semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Even with such vast experience on the big occasion of a Grand Slam, Rafael Nadal is nervous. His jitters aren’t eased by an impressive 7-1 head-to-head lead over Australian Open semifinal rival Grigor Dimitrov.

For a start, the 14-time major winner is aware Dimitrov broke through against him last time, in Beijing less than four months ago. And the emerging Bulgarian picked up where he left off late last year by winning the singles title in Brisbane three weeks ago in the perfect lead-up to the season’s first major championship.

“He’s a player that has an unbelievable talent, unbelievable potential,” Nadal said. “He started the season playing unbelievable.

“It’s going to be a very tough match for me. I hope for him, too. I’m going to try to play my best because I know he’s playing with high confidence.”

Nadal certainly won’t shy from another challenge and he draws strength from his own form that accounted for German teenager Alexander Zverev, Frenchman Gael Monfils and then big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic.

“I think all of them are top players. So that’s very important for me because that means that I’m competitive and playing well,” said Nadal, who won the Australian title in 2009. “Very happy that after a lot of work, to be in this round again. Is a special thing for me, especially here in Australia.”

Nadal reversed the recent loss to Raonic in Brisbane, where he was returning from a couple of months off to rest his injured left wrist. He went in with a more aggressive approach in Melbourne, taking the ball earlier to force errors as he surged to his 50th Grand Slam win at Melbourne Park and into his 24th major semifinal.

“Even moments he played so good from the baseline, I was there trying to stop his aggressive shots and don’t lose court, don’t lose meters behind the baseline. That’s an important change for me,” Nadal said. “I feel very happy for my attitude. I hit some great passing shots. That’s good news for me. When I make that happen, it’s because I’m playing well.”

No. 15-seeded Dimitrov conceded only nine games to 11th-seeded Belgian David Goffin in a clinical warm-up for his semifinal with Nadal.

He’s fit and fresh after rebuilding a ranking that slipped to 40 last July, his lowest standing for more than three years.

“I just kept doing the things that I was believing in,” he said, paying tribute to his coach Daniel Vallverdu and fitness trainer and others who “were there for me at the tough time.”

“I never felt that I was doing something wrong. I just felt that I was not playing and practicing well, not doing the right things. But with the right set of people, things started to slowly move forward for me. Now I think I’m just in a good place.”

Dimitrov said he had the talent and the preparation to reach his first Grand Slam final.

“I feel like I have all the tools to go further and my job isn’t over yet.” He said. “I’m ready to go the distance.

“Just going forward with the confidence that I have built up also from the previous tournament. With each match I’ve been feeling better and better – It just all comes pretty natural right now.”

Dimitrov had the luxury of watching the Nadal-Raonic duel Wednesday night while relaxing in his hotel room, staying in for the night to focus on his Open advance.

“Right now I’m enjoying the fight, that’s for sure. I’m enjoying running down every ball. When you feel physically good and you feel to kind of get into a match, that gives you a different perspective as soon as you get out on the court,” he said. “Whoever you play, you know you’re going to get your chance.”

Raonic withdraws from Miami Open with hamstring injury

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) Milos Raonic has pulled out of the Miami Open after aggravating a right hamstring injury that sidelined him for nearly a month.

The No. 3-seeded Raonic withdrew before Sunday’s match against American qualifier Jared Donaldson, who advanced to the fourth round.

Raonic said his injury became progressively worse after his opening match, his first since Feb. 25. He expects to be sidelined at least two weeks and perhaps longer.

The Canadian said he hasn’t made it through an entire tournament healthy since Wimbledon last July.

Nadal advances to start bid for first Key Biscayne

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Rafael Nadal’s first fist pump Friday followed his second point in the Miami Open, when he kissed a forehand off the sideline to win a long rally.

He accompanied the celebratory gesture with a skip in his step and then hit the accelerator, holding every service game to beat Dudi Sela 6-3, 6-4.

Thus began Nadal’s latest bid to win Key Biscayne.

“A lot of big motivation,” he said.

He’s playing the tournament for the 13th time and has never won it, although he was the runner-up in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2014. At 0 for 12, it’s Nadal’s longest drought at any event, and perhaps the most glaring gap in the 14-time Grand Slam champion’s resume.

Does it bug him? He won’t admit to any frustration, but lets slip that he still remembers the exact score when he was two points from the title in the third set versus Novak Djokovic.

That was six years ago.

“Against Novak – 6-5, 15-30,” Nadal said. “It didn’t happen.”

The Spaniard has always enjoyed the atmosphere in Miami, where Latin fans give him enthusiastic support, and he likes the tournament’s hard courts. He’s simply overdue.

“I’m trying my best every year,” Nadal told the stadium crowd after dispatching Sela. “I’ve been very close four times. I will try to give myself another chance.”

Nadal is 15-4 this year and pleased with his play. He lost to Roger Federer in the Australian Open final, and again in the fourth round at Indian Wells last week.

Against Sela, Nadal served well, erased the only two break points he faced and overcame the occasional errant groundstroke on a windy afternoon.

“It was very difficult to find the right feelings,” Nadal said. “These kind of days, what you have to do is try to win. That’s what I did, and I’m happy with that.”

Making Nadal’s title bid easier will be the absence of six-time champion Djokovic and two-time champion Andy Murray, both out with elbow injuries.

But No. 3-seeded Milos Raonic is back. He won in his first match since Feb. 25, beating Viktor Troicki 6-3, 7-5. Raonic had been sidelined by a right leg injury.

“I’ve prepared the best I can for this tournament,” Raonic said. “I’m not necessarily in the best position right now, but fortunately it’s a long tournament. Doesn’t mean things can’t change and I can’t get better throughout this event.”

No. 2 Kei Nishikori beat Kevin Anderson 6-4, 6-3. No. 7 Marin Cilic lost to Jeremy Chardy 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.

In women’s play, Elena Vesnina made a quick exit only five days after winning the biggest title of her career. Seeded 13th, Vesnina lost her opening match to wild card Ajla Tomljanovic 3-6, 6-4, 7-5.

Vesnina beat Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Indian Wells final.

In a match that took two days because of rain, No. 6 Garbine Muguruza rallied past Christina McHale 0-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4. No. 3 Simona Halep beat Naomi Osaka 6-4, 2-6, 6-3. American qualifier Taylor Townsend eliminated No. 25 Robert Vinci 6-3, 6-2.