It was about time Rafael Nadal faced some sort of test at the French Open.
Not that this one lasted all that long or was all that taxing.
Still, after dropping a total of 19 games through his first four matches — the fewest at Roland Garros in 30 years — Nadal finally found himself in an even-as-can-be set at the outset of his quarterfinal against 12th-seeded Nicolas Almagro.
While Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have been forced to come back from two-set deficits in Paris, this qualified as a tight spot for Nadal. They went to a tiebreaker, and when Almagro’s backhand return of a 121 mph serve landed out to cede the set, Nadal leaned forward and yelled, ”Come on!”
Maybe it signaled excitement. Perhaps relief. This much was clear, in case anyone harbored any doubt: Nadal can summon his best play when he needs it. Moving closer to a record seventh French Open championship, Nadal reached the semifinals by beating Almagro 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-3 to improve to 50-1 at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament.
”I played well. I applied my strategy. I tried to do my best,” Almagro said. ”But he was at such a high level.”
As he always is at Roland Garros. This year, though, Nadal’s level has been even higher than usual.
Not only has he won all 15 sets he’s played, but get this: Nadal has won 60 of his 61 service games so far, 54 in a row since getting broken in the second set of his first-round victory over Simone Bolelli of Italy. He’s saved 16 of 17 break points, including going 4 for 4 against Almagro.
”If I’d not lost any set and not lost my serve, it would have been a miracle,” the second-seeded Nadal said. ”It’s just impossible to achieve that.”
The next player who will try to stop him is No. 6 David Ferrer, who, like Nadal and Almagro, is from Spain. Ferrer reached his third major semifinal, but first at Roland Garros, by eliminating No. 4 Andy Murray 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-2 in a match interrupted by a half-hour rain delay early in the third set.
Ferrer recalled watching on TV when countrymen Sergi Bruguera, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya won French Open trophies.
”This tournament, I think, is very special for all the Spanish players — and also for me,” Ferrer said.
Would be even better, of course, if he can get past his pal Nadal, who has won 15 of their 19 career meetings.
”Winning a match against Rafa is almost impossible,” Ferrer acknowledged. ”He is in such good shape.”
The other men’s semifinal Friday will be No. 1-ranked Djokovic against No. 3 Federer. Djokovic is bidding to become the first man to win four consecutive major titles since Rod Laver 43 years ago. Federer wants to add to his record 16 Grand Slam titles and end a drought of more than two years without one.
Ferrer and Federer are both 30 — the last two of the record 37 thirtysomethings who were in the draw — and it’s the first time two French Open semifinalists were at least that old since Laver and Ken Rosewall in 1969. It hasn’t happened at any Grand Slam tournament since Andre Agassi and Wayne Ferreira were in the final four at the 2003 Australian Open.
Against Murray, Ferrer was the picture of perpetual motion, chasing down shots to extend points time after time.
”He is so solid, so consistent,” Murray said, ”that if you’re not converting your opportunities, it turns to many long games, and then the pressure can build on your serve.”
He was speaking about Ferrer, but might as well have been discussing Nadal.
For that 62-minute first set against Almagro, Nadal could have been forgiven for thinking he was looking into a mirror, facing a right-handed version of himself. Almagro hit the ball as hard as Nadal does, with as much spin, and covered the same amount of ground, getting nearly everything back.
Both took big cuts at the ball and set up way behind the baseline, engaging in exchanges that lasted 10 or 15 strokes.
With Almagro ahead 5-4, and Nadal serving at 15-love, a 19-shot point ended with Nadal pushing a forehand long. That meant Almagro was three points from taking the set. But Nadal took the next three points, including a pair of 118 mph service winners. In the tiebreaker, Nadal pulled ahead 5-1, before dropping three points in a row.
This, then, would be the key moment. Nadal went ahead 6-4 with a cross-court backhand that forced an error, then closed the set with the service winner that he greeted with a shout.
”His serve was really good today,” Almagro said. ”At the important moments, he served better than (he did) the rest of the match.”