Rafael Nadal returns to brilliant self

PARIS -- After a series of early misadventures here at Roland Garros, the five-time champion was, at last, relentlessly, Rafa. After talking about his waning confidence as if it were an injured bird, Rafael Nadal now seems properly positioned contend for a sixth title.

On Wednesday, he met Robin Soderling here for the third year in a row. It was the scowling Swede who beat Rafa in 2009, the only time Nadal has lost a match at the French Open. One wonders whether Soderling will ever stop paying for that indiscretion.

Nadal returned to his brilliant self, defending with breathtaking speed and skill and grit, taking his chances when they were offered. He served well and returned better. Soderling was overwhelmed, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (3), when one last forehand fell into the net.

Rafa's postmatch news conference, too, was more upbeat than his recent efforts.

"I did a lot of things very good today," Nadal said. "Six semifinals here in Roland Garros. Easy to say, very difficult to do.

"It's a fantastic result."

Two days earlier, Nadal said he couldn't win this tournament.

"I can be in semifinals, I am in semifinals," he said Wednesday. "Seriously, for me is fantastic news, fantastic result, especially without playing my best during all the tournament.

"I don't know if I can win the tournament. We'll see what's going on."

And so, finally, there are only four.

The 124 pretenders have left the building, and we're down to the top four seeds. On Friday Nadal, the No. 1 seed, will play No. 4 Andy Murray, who beat Juan Ignacio Chela 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-2 in the other men's quarterfinal. No. 2 Novak Djokovic, he of the 41-0 start to the 2011 season, takes on No. 3 Roger Federer, who has already lost to the streaking Serb three times this year.

Men's tennis -- it's the new women's tennis.

Remember when the leading females used to breeze through the early rounds, hardly elevating their pulse rate, and arrive safely in the quarterfinals? This year at Roland Garros, none of the top four seeds -- in ranking order, Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva or Victoria Azarenka -- made it into the semifinals. It's the first time that has happened here in six years.

On the men's side, it's just the opposite.

For the first time since Wimbledon in 1989, all five top men's seeds reached the quarterfinals of a major. On only 11 occasions in the Open era have the top four seeds comprised the last four in a major; the most recent coming here five years ago when Federer and Nadal were joined by David Nalbandian and Ivan Ljubicic.

Murray was left for dead when he tore a tendon in his right ankle in a fourth-round match against Michael Berrer. He lost the first five games to Viktor Troicki, but rallied to win a two-day, five-set match to guarantee his best-ever result at the French Open. The ankle has limited his mobility, at least slightly, but perhaps the sense of urgency to end points has forced Murrray to become the more aggressive player critics have called for.

He had 59 winners against Chela -- 35 more than Nadal had against Soderling. On his third straight day of tennis, Murray -- who joked the other day that he had more pills in him that Ozzy Osbourne -- was good enough to beat 31-year-old Chela.

"I'm surprised I'm here, to be honest," Murray said. "I haven't played particularly well. And now I'm in the semis of a Slam. That's a good sign.

"I've got two days to rest up and get ready for Rafa, which is always one of the most exciting matches. I have to play a very consistent match. I can definitely win. I just need to play my best."

Murray played a spectacular match on clay two weeks ago, pushing Djokovic to a third-set tiebreaker in the semifinals at Rome.

Nadal, who has played on tender ankles, said he didn't think the injury would have an impact on the match.

"It's something that you feel the pain, but it doesn't limit you," Nadal said. "You resist, a little bit, the pain. In my opinion, it's not going to affect him. He's playing well."

Oddly enough, Nadal seemed almost as interested in the other blockbuster semifinal that will take place Friday.

"The best player of the world today against the best player of the history, so difficult to say more things," he said succinctly. "It's going to be, in my opinion, fantastic match.

"We will see what's going on. I think both of them have chances to be in the final. Djokovic is playing fantastic; Roger did very well during all this tournament. Roger have enough potential to beat everybody, and you know how good can be Roger in the final rounds of a Grand Slam."

Did Rafa tweak his game before the match, do something to bring his level up?

"Nothing secret, nothing magic," Nadal said. "I say it every day. I try my best in every moment. Only try your best every day and try to enjoy it, suffering sometimes.

"I am happy about how I arrived to the semifinals."