This will be the third Nadal-Federer final this year with the Swiss maestro prevailing twice at the Australian Open and Miami Masters.
1 just about beat his friend Dimitrov, the sixth seed, 6-4, 6-7 (4/7), 6-3 to stay on course for a possible glamour final with old rival Roger Federer.
The effort, and disappointment, affected Cilic's focus just for a moment, long enough to miss three shots in a row and hand the break to Nadal: The Spaniard served out the set, 7-5, and the Qi Zhong stadium erupted.
The high quality tennis continued in the second set as Nadal prowled the baseline, while Federer mixed up his game superbly - approaching the net with such grace when the opportunity presented itself.
With many predicting players like Germany's Alexander Zverev to become the sport's next dominant players, Federer and Nadal aren't done yet.
However, Federer was in control from the first ball, looking to break down Nadal's defence with an assault of forehands and backhands.
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Nadal took the momentum into the next game to immediately break Dimitrov and finally end the Bulgarian's resolve. However, a victory would put him one win away from a first-ever Shanghai title and an, even more, firm stranglehold on the race for year-end number one.
Will Nadal come out on top?
Cilic then lost a semi-final in Tokyo, but seems to hit have hit top form again in Shanghai. "He's a great champ and he's definitely one of the guys that makes me a better player".
"It's nice at this late stage of the career that we still have these matches going on".
The timeless Federer rubbished that notion as he seared his way to a 5-3 first-set lead.
The 2014 Shanghai champion took on one of the men who has caused him the most problems in recent years, Juan Martin del Potro.
No.1 seed Nadal can claim a 31st ATP Masters 1000 title if he wins against Federer, who came from behind toe beat Del Potro, which would break a record he now shares with Novak Djokovic.