Birthday boy Rafael Nadal targets three prizes in one
The sun came out and the tennis took off. Suddenly, fans around the world remembered what they loved about this sport and this tournament.
The showpiece event of the second quarter-finals day at Roland Garros needed sunshine, pitting as it did two fiery Spaniards -Rafael Nadal and Nicolas Almagro -against one another.
Although Nadal, who turns 24 today, was 6-0 up in their head-to-head, Almagro had taken the first set in each of their last two matches. The most recent was in the semis at Madrid just weeks ago.
Almagro came as close to beating his compatriot as anyone has managed in this year’s tournament. He played his aggressive all-court game from the off, and got a 3-0 lead in the opening set with his trademark big serve and deep forehand.
But Nadal soon pulled back the advantage using his now classic play against the one-handed backhand -he has years of practice against Roger Federer.
Nadal’s heavy top-spin forehand surges above his opponent’s left shoulder to open the court for a lethal cross-court killer blow. And combined with a serve that is acquiring more variety, angle and penetration all the time, he was able to hold off the impressive Almagro 7-6 7-6 6-4.
Nadal has gradually imposed himself on this year’s French Open like the tightening of a thumbscrew. As if his arrival last week with all three clay Masters titles in the bag was not intimidating enough, he has now progressed to the semi-finals without losing a set.
And this latest win means that Nadal has a perfect 20-0 record on the 2010 clay.
So while the result -which took over two-and-a-half hours -will have hurt Almagro’s pride, it should also hearten him. He will gain enough ranking points to take him into the top 20 from No. 40 less than three months ago. Along the way, he has also broken a three-match losing streak against his ninth-seeded compatriot Fernando Verdasco.
If the Spanish battle raised the temperature, the match on the adjacent court between Jurgen Melzer and Novak Djokovic sent the mercury skyward. 29-year-old Melzer, the oldest man in the quarter-finals, has been enjoying his best ever Slam run -indeed he had never got beyond the third round before. But he wasn’t about to stop at the quarters.
The omens were not good when the Austrian went down two sets to love and was then broken at the start of the third set. He had never come back from such a deficit in his career before.
And Djokovic, in his third Roland Garros semi, looked both confident and relaxed. The Serb, however, has been troubled by his serve all season and although he played well off the ground, he produced 10 double faults and just four aces in what became a nail-biter of a match.
The left-handed Melzer took six games in a row to seal the third set and then fought through a highly competitive one hour 20 minute fourth set. The ninth game alone lasted 28 points and saw Djokovic save eight break points. It seemed appropriate then, that the set should end in a tie-break and that Melzer should win it.
The final set brought out the best in both men: running down every shot, firing winners to all corners, and pounding their chests with a clenched fist at each break point won and saved.
Djokovic’s ball-bouncing got more frantic, and Melzer lost more break point chances. Tactically, it was intelligent, creative and thrilling, not least for the oft-repeated and highly effective play of powerful drives to the baseline followed by a drop shot and completed by a lob.
If Melzer’s downfall looked as though it would be his inability to convert 23 break points, his salvation eventually came from the 24th which allowed him to serve out the match 6-4 after over four hours.
So it is now down to four men, only one of whom is actually seeded or ranked in the top four. Nadal flies the flag for the best in the world, accompanied by his 2009 Roland Garros nemesis, Robin Soderling.
For the two to meet in the final on Sunday, they will both have to take on Grand Slam semi-final virgins, Melzer and Tomas Berdych. It is not what was expected, but it is no less exciting for that.
And adding spice to the outcome are the prizes on Nadal’s horizon: a fifth Roland Garros title, the unique record of the ‘clay slam’ and the No.1 crown. Nadal’s birthday celebrations may have to wait just a few more days.