Nadal charges into U.S. Open semi-finals

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By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal took the next step in his charge after the one grand slam crown missing from his collection by demolishing fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco 7-5 6-3 6-4 on Thursday to reach the semi-finals of the U.S. Open.

That was the highlight for Verdasco, a friend, practice partner and Davis Cup team mate of Nadal.

The 24-year-old French and Wimbledon champion never faced another break point in a dazzling all-round display that had Verdasco flinging his racket and talking to himself.

"For now it's a very nice feeling to be in semi-finals for third time in a row in one of the most important tournaments of the world," said Nadal. "For me right now probably the most important."

Nadal danced circles around Verdasco in their first hardcourt meeting since their epic five-hour 14-minute slugfest in the semi-finals of the 2009 Australian Open won by Nadal.

He raced deep into the corners to rip winners past a flabbergasted Verdasco, sliced angled drop shots that caught his compatriot flat-footed and, in a last flourish, did a pirouette at the net to scoop up a half-volley for another highlight-reel point.

To top it off, the virtuoso display came on a chilly, blustery night on the Arthur Ashe center court.

"It's very difficult to play, one of the more difficult days," said Nadal, who felt his opponent's fifth-set tiebreaker victory over compatriot David Ferrer in the fourth round had taken something out of Verdasco.

"I know Fernando had a very tough match two days ago so he was probably a little more tired than usual."

The defeat dropped Verdasco to 0-11 against Nadal.

Nadal's next opponent will be 12th-seeded Russian Mikhail Youzhny, who advanced with a five-set victory over Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland.

Youzhny will be making his second appearance in a U.S. Open semi-final after beating Nadal in the quarter-finals at the 2006 championship.

Saturday's other semi-final pits five-time U.S. Open winner Roger Federer, the second seed, against third-seeded Novak Djokovic of Serbia.

(Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by Frank Pingue)