World No 2 is on course for fifth French title as he seals a semi-final spot after a hard-fought straight sets win over fellow Spaniard. Rafael Nadal shook off dogged resistance from Nicolas Almagro last night to stay on course for a fifth French Open title. Although he maintained his record of not having dropped a set at this year's tournament, the world No 2 was made to fight all the way by his fellow Spaniard before sealing a 7-6 (7/2), 7-6 (7/3), 6-4 victory in two hours and 35 minutes.
Almagro atoned for his humiliation by Nadal at the same stage at Roland Garros two years ago with a courageous show of defiance. But he was unable to compete in the tie-breaks against an opponent who is now the overwhelming favourite for the title following the defending champion Roger Federer's demise on Tuesday. Although the Spaniard was keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground after the match.
"No one's favourite, four players are playing well and we'll see what happens," Nadal said in a television interview after the match. "I'm sorry for Roger [Federer] because he did amazing last year and he deserved the title more than anyone." Nadal, who turns 24 today, had won all six of his previous meetings with Almagro, including a 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 thrashing at the same stage of the 2008 French Open - the most one-sided men's quarter-final in the tournament's Open-era history.
But Almagro, who was bidding to reach his first grand slam semi-final, had taken a set from his compatriot in their past two meetings. And he made a lightning start, winning eight of the first nine points to move 2-0 ahead. He was forced to save two break-back points in the next, winning it to secure as many games as he had in the whole of their last Roland Garros clash. But typical chasing down from Nadal helped him break back in game five and, although Almagro continued to trouble him with his aggressive play, a tie-break followed, which the former completely dominated. Undeterred, Almagro continued to go toe-to-toe with his illustrious opponent in a punishing second set, which saw no break points until Nadal serve-volleyed his way out of trouble in game nine.
It proved the only break chance of the set and Nadal made Almagro pay for not taking it by stepping up the pace in the tie-break once more to take a two-set lead. The second seed had break point in the opening game of the third but Almagro refused to yield. Once again, neither player looked like dropping serve until the latter made a succession of mistakes in game nine and was broken to love. Almagro saved one match point with a brilliant winner in the next but Nadal was not to be denied, setting up a semi-final match against Jurgen Melzer, the Austrian, who edged a five-set encounter against Novak Djokovic 3-6, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4 on the Suzanne Lenglen Court yesterday.
The Serbian Djokovic, ranked No 3 in the world, raced into a two-set lead with just over an hour played before Melzer rallied to take the third. The fourth set proved to be a tight affair until Melzer levelled the match after winning the tie-break. Both men showed nerves during an error-strewn fifth and final set before Melzer got the decisive break and then saved two break points of his own and converted his third match point to book his spot in the last four at Roland Garros - the 29-year-old's first semi-final grand slam appearance. * Compiled by Steve Luckings, with agencies