Novak Djokovic on Friday set up a mouthwatering Indian Wells semi-final showdown with nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal.
Both Nadal and Djokovic eased through their Indian Wells quarter-final contests in straight sets and will now square off in a match worthy of a title clash.
“It is going to be a game of cat and mouse,” Djokovic said. “I enjoy the rivalry against Rafa. It is probably the most exciting rivalry I have had in my career.”
World number five Nadal survived an early assault to defeat Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-4, 6-3 in the joint ATP and WTA Tour hardcourt tournament in the Californian desert.
The Nadal-Nishikori match kicked off a star-studded pair of Indian Wells quarter-finals on Friday featuring four of the world’s top 10 players.
Djokovic defeated ninth-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, of France, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2).
“I beat a top 10 player and that is important for my confidence,” said Nadal, who is hoping to put to bed speculation that his career is on a downward spiral. He has won 14 Grand Slam titles but none in the past 18 months.
“Tomorrow is another opportunity for me to play against another top player.”
The swashbuckling Spaniard is looking for another stamp in his championship passport, having already won Indian Wells in 2007, 2009 and 2013, while Djokovic is going for a record fifth crown.
“I feel I am strong mentally and I have the right energy,” Nadal said. “I am able to fight for every ball and I now believe in myself the whole match.”
Nadal had just two aces but he took care of his serve on Friday by winning 62% of his first-serve points. He broke Nishikori four times.
He closed out the 93-minute match with a forehand down the line that Nishikori stumbled after but came nowhere near to getting a racquet on.
Nadal improved to 8-1 lifetime against Nishikori and avenged a loss in their most recent meeting last year at Montreal.
Nadal and Djokovic are nearly even in their 47 head-to-head meetings, with the Serb owning a 24-23 edge.
Nadal knows it is not wise to bet against Djokovic and if anyone else wins the Indian Wells title it would be a big surprise.
“He’s a clear favourite because he’s winning all the matches almost every time,” Nadal said of Djokovic.
Two-time defending champion Djokovic has already won twice this year including the Australian Open.
He is hoping to use Indian Wells as a stepping stone to winning his first French Open in two months and complete the career Grand Slam.
Djokovic has had a distinct advantage against Nadal, coming out victorious in nine of their last 10 matches.
Djokovic said he needs to get off to a fast start against the Spaniard.
“I won the last couple of times we played against each other so maybe that can give me a slight mental advantage,” Djokovic said.
“When you step on the court you feel the tension. That’s why it is important to use that strong emotion and intensity and channel it in a positive way rather than a negative way.”
Djokovic blasted two aces, 18 winners and had four double faults in the two hour, six minute match on Friday.
Tsonga had seven double faults and had his serve broken twice as his magic run this week came to a grinding halt under the 34 degree Celsius (93F) heat in the main stadium.
No Frenchman has reached the semis here since Guy Forget played Jim Courier in the final four in 1991.