Nadal scrapes way into semifinals

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Rafael Nadal, despite his vulnerable knees (and more recently, back), has been a remarkably consistent player.

No active player -- hello there, Mr. Federer -- has been ranked among the ATP World Tour's top five for a longer stretch; come May, Rafa will hit the nine-year mark. Since winning his first Grand Slam singles title, at Roland Garros in 2005, Nadal has played 32 majors, won 13 and missed four.

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Rafael Nadal is now two wins away from winning the Sony Open for the first time.

When he crashed out in the first round of Wimbledon after another bout with those fluky knees, some wondered if Nadal would ever again be a force on hard courts. And then, in a span of 37 summer days, Nadal won 17 consecutive matches and the titles in Montreal, Cincinnati and New York.

One of those tilts -- the final in Canada -- was against a 23-year-old Canadian named Milos Ranoic. He lost 6-2, 6-2, but clearly a lesson was learned.

On Wednesday night a 24-year-old from Japan, Kei Nishikori, stunned venerable champion Roger Federer. Thursday night it was Raonic who threw a plausible scare into Federer's phenomenal foil, Nadal.

Returning serve like he was at home at Roland Garros -- sometimes 10 feet behind the baseline -- Nadal scuffled and scraped to a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory. He seemed quite relieved when it was over. He'll play Tomas Berdych in a Friday semifinal.

"There is always the pressure to play against a big server like Milos," Nadal said in his on-court interview. "When you are a set down and only have one break, you do not have time to relax. I was lucky to have the advantage at the beginning of the second set when Milos double-faulted."

Nadal and Raonic entered the match as the only two players who haven't had their serves broken in the tournament. That's not the case anymore. While Nadal had three opportunities to do so in the first set, he couldn't accomplish it. Raonic is typically among the ATP's ace leaders, but a high ankle sprain suffered at the Australian Open limited him to only seven matches played coming into the tournament. Still, the 6-foot-5, 200-pounder was averaging a formidable 17 aces per match and he unleashed a few bombs against Nadal -- one of them at 144 miles per hour.

With Nadal serving at 4-5, Raonic shocked the crowd by taking the first set when Nadal sandwiched two atypical double faults around a brilliant backhand volley stab from Raonic. After losing four matches and all eight sets to Rafa, Raonic had finally broken through.

Rafa, as you might have suspected, came crunching back to break Raonic at the top of the second set. A double fault, struck well long, was Raonic's undoing. And then it happened again; Another double gave Rafa a 3-0 lead (very nearly 5-0) and this one had the feeling of another three-set instant classic.

Raonic held off Rafa (barely) until the seventh game of the ultimate set. He actually secured two game points, but with the match well past the two-hour mark he appeared to be tiring and missed seven first serves in that game alone. Nadal hit a looping forehand and Raonic's backhand found the net.

The good news? Raonic will be a top-10 player again on Monday when the ATP rankings come out. The bad? He had some serious chances to win this thing.

"It was hard, but I feel that I fought a lot today," Rafa said. "I am happy to be in the semifinal."

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