Print and Go Back ESPN.com: French Open 2012 [Print without images]

Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Rafa raising his level at crunch time

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

PARIS -- Although it is perfectly fine to wish, only the truly greedy would expect Rafael Nadal and Nicolas Almagro and Andy Murray and David Ferrer to repeat Tuesday's intense and powerful Roland Garros quarterfinals. The wish, naturally, was not granted.

The Wednesday mood at Court Philippe Chatrier resembled a light Sunday morning hangover, the chatter still about the day earlier, when Novak Djokovic broke the hearts of 10,000 Parisians and particularly that of one Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who played about as well as he could play. The crowd's collective expectations did not seem that particularly high, and its thoughts were generally justified as Nadal defeated Almagro 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-3 in a match made curious because the ease of the score did not reflect its physical nature.

Rafael Nadal
Five matches played, five straight-set wins for Rafael Nadal.

Nadal is two victories from his record-breaking seventh French Open title. He has still not dropped a set. Almagro took Nadal to a first-set tiebreaker that featured a backbreaking 36-shot rally. But it was that point that planted the first seeds of doubt into the head of the hot-tempered Almagro. The indefatigable Ferrer, who ousted Murray in the last quarterfinal on Court Suzanne Lenglen, will play Nadal on Friday.

"We've played each other a lot of times," Nadal said. "We played in Barcelona and I won 7-6, 7-6. His game bothers everyone because he's one of the best players in the world, on clay especially. He's everything. A complete player."

Almagro fought hard against Nadal, ripping vicious forehands followed by fist pumps and long stares. Almagro is not a big man, but he plays a game that is all power. When he thrived, it was through grunts and forehands and serves and smashes. When Almagro tried to get cute with the odd-fitting finesse shots and drop shots off Nadal's second serves, he faltered.

Without the wave and the nationalism and the golden opportunities, Almagro's match Wednesday resembled Tsonga's on Tuesday in that Almagro played as well as he could play against one of the two best players in the world. Almagro did not shrink from competition. He was not intimidated by the aura of Nadal. He did not walk away wishing he had played his game. He simply is not a good enough player to beat Nadal on even footing, and he knew it.

"Well, I'm very happy with my tennis today," Almagro said. "I think I played one of the best matches I can play against Rafa, but he's No. 1 in the world on this surface. The only thing I can say is I'm going to work a lot for the next time."

The final two sets turned in three games in which Almagro had a chance to break in the second set, and Nadal snuffed out the chance. In the third, at 2-2 and at 3-3, Almagro had his opportunities, but Nadal, like Djokovic the day before, did not allow for more chances afterward.

Nadal raised the level of his serve to meet Almagro's hard-hitting challenge. At 3-3, 15-40 in the third, Nadal fired an ace down the service line, followed by a vicious fist pump. Nadal knew he was in a physical match that the score did not reflect. At deuce, Almagro netted a forehand and the ensuing return and trailed 4-3. Nadal was relentless, breaking Almagro first with a down-the-line forehand and again when Almagro netted an aggressive forehand to give Nadal a 5-3 lead.

Smelling the blood that led to the semifinals, Nadal ripped two forehands, one to the left side and another from the right to turn a 0-15 deficit into a 30-15 lead. Almagro sailed a backhand volley long to set up match point, which Nadal converted with another ace down the middle.

The play-by-play of the final three games of the match underscored two things: Almagro was not embarrassed or even soundly defeated. And Nadal was simply better. The second reason reinforces Nadal's killer instinct as the match neared its close. Unlike lesser players, Nadal did not play it safe or wait for a mistake from the other side of the net. He saw his opening and floored the accelerator. History was waiting.