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Nadal and Federer ease into Monte Carlo quarters

By Mark Meadows

MONACO (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer continued on a collision course toward the Monte Carlo Masters final after easily winning their third round matches in contrasting conditions Thursday.

Nadal braved unusually chilly temperatures on the sun-kissed Cote d'Azur to seal a quarter-final spot against Ivan Ljubicic with a straightforward 6-2 6-4 victory over Richard Gasquet.

While the crowd huddled for warmth deciding whether to cheer six-times champion Nadal or local favorite Gasquet, the Spaniard had already broken the Frenchman in the first game as his sheer power on clay again overawed an opponent.

The top seed, bidding to be the first man to win the same tournament seven times in a row as he warms up for next month's French Open, almost lost the next game but held serve thanks to a stunning backhand down the line and hardly looked back.

"I think I played better than yesterday. In general I think it was a very positive victory against a very difficult opponent," Nadal told reporters.

"I feel when I'm playing well with the forehand, it's a very important shot for me. So I can have the control of the point most of the time with the forehand. That's my style always, no?"

Gasquet broke for 4-4 in the second set to reveal a chink in Nadal's armor, offering pretenders to his crown a glimmer of hope that the Spaniard is beatable on his favorite surface.

Second seed Federer staked his claim with a 6-4 6-3 victory over Croatia's Marin Cilic after the sun had broken through.

SUPERB WINNERS

The Swiss barely got out of first gear but unleashed some superb winners and next meets Austrian Juergen Melzer Friday.

"I'm mixing it up well (with the serve). Today was another solid performance which I was happy about," Federer said.

World number four Andy Murray outwitted France's Gilles Simon 6-3 6-3 to build on his opening victory over Radek Stepanek -- his first win in two and a half months.

Simon had lengthy treatment after turning an ankle but then went on to break the Briton in the first game of the second set only for Murray to storm back using drop shots which the booing crowd felt were unfair given the Frenchman's injury.

Fourth seed David Ferrer navigated his way through the third round with a 6-1 6-3 win over Canada's fast-rising Milos Raonic but Czech fifth seed Tomas Berdych hit the rocks when he was overwhelmed by Croatia's Ljubicic 6-4 6-2.

Raonic, who has rocketed from 156th in the rankings at the year's start to 34th, had no answer to the Spaniard's guile as Ferrer sailed to victory with giant cruiseliner the Queen Mary 2 docked in the bay just behind the center court.

Eighth seed Gael Monfils lost 7-6 6-2 to vibrant Portuguese qualifier Frederico Gil, Murray's next opponent, while Spain's Tommy Robredo retired hurt when leading Viktor Troicki.

(Editing by Justin Palmer)