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Nadal advances as Djokovic ousted at Monte Carlo Masters

AP, Kyodo

Rafael Nadal remains on course to retain his Monte Carlo Masters title and won’t have Novak Djokovic standing in his way.

The top-ranked Nadal beat big-hitting Russian Karen Khachanov 6-3, 6-2 on Friday to reach the quarterfinals, clinching victory with a clinical smash at the net. The 10-time champion next faces fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem, who earlier won 6-7 (2-7), 6-2, 6-3 against Djokovic.

“(Thiem) plays so good on every surface but especially on clay. He hits the ball hard,” said Nadal. “I can’t let him play from good positions because he has lot of power and it will be so difficult to control him.”

Thiem can take confidence from having beaten Nadal twice on clay, including in the quarterfinals of last year’s Rome Masters.

“It’s a way better feeling if you go against him and know that you’ve beaten him already on this surface,” Thiem said. “It’s the ultimate challenge to play against him. I have to raise my level again.”

Djokovic was once Nadal’s nemesis, even on clay. He ended the Spanish player’s 46-match winning run by beating him in the 2013 final, and then won the tournament in 2015.

But the former top-ranked Serb, who has won 12 majors, is searching for form and confidence now.

A day after needing 10 match points to advance, Djokovic didn’t even come close to getting one. Although he says he is finally playing pain-free after two years of struggles with a persistent right elbow injury, he was often on the back foot against Thiem.

He saved one match point against Thiem, but indecision cost him on the second as the ninth-seeded Djokovic seemed to change his mind over which shot to play at the net.

Djokovic did save three set points in the first set, and the momentum carried over into the tiebreak. But his backhand let him down after that, with Thiem getting consecutive breaks and holding for the second set when his opponent patted a two-handed backhand into the net.

Still, after so much injury frustration, Djokovic was encouraged about coming through three matches without any relapse.

“I played without pain, which is important,” he said. “I’m really happy with the way things are working out right now with the elbow.”

Nadal’s victory could have been even more efficient but he surprisingly dropped his serve in the seventh game of the first set. He broke straight back and then took complete control.

Kei Nishikori edged Andreas Seppi of Italy 6-0, 2-6, 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals.

Up 3-2 in the third set, Nishikori, who returned to the ATP Tour in February after a season-ending wrist injury last summer, turned the tide in the sixth game when he broke Seppi’s serve and pulled away to join the final eight.

“There were moments I felt like I was playing ideal tennis,” said Nishikori, who closed out the first set in 25 minutes.

“I’m getting better with every game. I’m finding my rhythm. It’s tough, but I’m managing alright,” he said.

Nishikori, now ranked 36th, will face world No. 3 and second-seeded Marin Cilic of Croatia on Friday in their 14th head-to-head.

“I was in attack mode (in the third set). It was good that I was able to play aggressively in key situations,” Nishikori said. “I was able to play offensive tennis in the third set.”