Rafael Nadal is so good on clay that he has reached this week's semifinals at the French Open, and not many top players can say that.
Eager to reassert himself as the king of clay, Nadal has been immune to the recent wave of upsets at Roland Garros. The four-time champion advanced Wednesday to the final four by beating fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-4. "When I am in semifinals, it's very good news for me," Nadal said.
His opponent Friday will be journeyman Jurgen Melzer, who joined the upset trend by coming from two sets and a break down to oust No. 3-seeded Novak Djokovic 3-6, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-4. The Austrian had not advanced beyond the third round in his previous 31 Grand Slam tournaments.
There was also a shock on the women's side _ top-ranked Serena Williams lost to Australia's Samantha Stosur 6-2, 6-7 (2), 8-6.
The surprises began Monday, when Stosur _ who also reached the semis here last year _ ended four-time champion Justine Henin's Roland Garros winning streak at 24 matches. On Tuesday, top-ranked Roger Federer lost to Robin Soderling.
Williams' loss made it three players with a collective 35 Grand Slam titles missing from the semifinals.
Yet Nadal's still standing. In fact, he has won all 15 sets in the tournament. The Spaniard has a career record of 36-1 at Roland Garros, with the only loss to Soderling last year, and he's 20-0 on clay in 2010. Seeded second, he's a heavy title favorite now that defending champion Federer has been eliminated.
"Sorry for him, because he did amazing last year, and he deserved this title," Nadal said. "Right now there is no one favorite." He said that mindful that Soderling lurks as a possible opponent in the final, which would mean a rematch of last year's stunning upset. But through five rounds, Nadal has been as dominant as ever on clay, controlling rallies and returning aggressively.
"I played against Rafa," Almagro said. "Had I been playing against another opponent, who knows what might have happened?" Nadal saved his best for big points. He outscored Almagro 14-5 in the tiebreakers. The rest of the match, the margin was 103-101.
"I am very happy how I played the tiebreaks," Nadal said. "I played very aggressive, very focused, and in important moments I played better than the rest of the match. That's a very good news, no?"
Nadal spent much of the match several steps behind the baseline, as always. But he won 12 of 16 points when he reached the net, even playing serve and volley on occasion. "You like it today, no?" Nadal said of the tactic. He said he decided to charge behind his serve only after seeing how Almagro hit his return.
"I had the chance to go inside a few times, and I did well," Nadal said. Is there satisfaction in surprising his opponent with such a move? "Satisfaction because I won a point," a smiling Nadal responded.
He's bidding to become only the second man to win Roland Garros five times. Bjorn Borg holds the record with six titles, and Nadal may have many chances to match the achievement _ he celebrates a birthday Thursday but is still only 24. Because it's the eve of the semifinals, he said he'll delay any partying until he returns home.
"I'm going to celebrate during the day, not during the night," he said with a smile. "I'm going to have time at Mallorca to celebrate the birthday during the night."
Should Nadal win the title, he'll regain the top ranking from Federer. But first the Spaniard has to beat Melzer, who won by overcoming a two-set deficit for the first time in his career. He also trailed 2-0 in the third set before the comeback began.
Djokovic, a two-time semifinalist at Roland Garros, blamed himself for blowing the big lead. He was also unhappy that the chair umpire reversed a ruling in the final game.
A cross-court forehand by Djokovic was called good for a winner, but the umpire climbed down from his chair, checked the ball mark on the clay and ruled the shot wide.
"There was no space between the line and the mark, and that means the ball is good," said Djokovic, who argued only briefly. "To make such a mistake at that point is unbelievable. I mean, I don't know what was going on with him, but the ball was looking good from everywhere. Even on the TV you could see it was good."
Djokovic conceded the ruling didn't decide the match, however. There were 12 more points to go before Melzer became Roland Garros' latest spoiler. "My body just kind of got loose after two-sets-to-love down," the Austrian said. "Nothing to lose, anyways. And then I played the match of my life." AP