Who can foil the Rafa party?
PARIS -- This is the hand of cards we all expected in the French Open men's semifinals, right? Two late bloomers, a chronic underachiever and the best clay-court player of his or perhaps any generation.
In the past, Roland Garros often has shuffled the deck and presented us with little-known face cards, but then came three straight years (2006-08) where the draw played to form and Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer lulled us into thinking that the clay was yielding a truer bounce.
Robin Soderling broke up that party last year by beating Nadal in the fourth round, and dumped Federer in the quarters this year. Soderling's semifinal matchup with Tomas Berdych pits two power players whose shots, in the words of the old Ajax cleanser commercial, are stronger than dirt. Nadal will take on the most unlikely of the final four, junk-balling 29-year-old lefty Jurgen Melzer, who had never advanced past the third round of a Grand Slam before this week.
No. 5 seed Robin Soderling (SWE) vs. No. 15 Tomas Berdych (CZE)
These two strapping sluggers share the competitive achievement of having beaten the world No. 1 this season: Berdych after saving match point against an uncharacteristically error-prone Roger Federer in Miami, Soderling far more dramatically and surprisingly here in Paris on a wet, blustery day. Conditions promise to be much warmer and drier on Friday, which should give Berdych's serve better pop -- but this match is going to be won above the shoulders.
This marks the mild-mannered Berdych's first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, years later than most observers thought he would cross that frontier, and he has yet to lose a set in this tournament. His talent is indisputable, his weapons formidable, but his career has been far more Clark Kent than Superman.
Berdych, 24, has tried to work on his most obvious technical flaw, movement, but questions about his hunger and desire have loomed far larger than any deficiency of form. Even after routing Russia's Mikhail Youzhny in the quarters, Berdych seemed unwilling to declare that the future is now.
"This is the question [that] everybody likes, you know, if I'm playing my best tennis in the career," Berdych said. "It's tough to say, because I hope not. I hope that I can still bring something more and I can, you know, keep it for long period of time."
There's no such mystery surrounding the 25-year-old Soderling. His game is imbued with a controlled urgency these days, and he looked utterly fearless against Federer. "I don't want to celebrate too much," Soderling said after denying the Swiss maestro a spot in a Slam semifinal for the first time since 2004. "I want to focus on the next game."
Soderling and Berdych split their only two matches on clay a few seasons ago and defeated one another by identical, lopsided scores in their last two matches on hard courts in Malaysia and Miami. They've never faced one another in a Grand Slam, however, and all the signs point to Soderling's being ready to rise to the occasion.
Prediction: Soderling has spent an entire year positioning himself for this moment. He's going back to the finals with a four-set win.
No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. No. 22 Jurgen Melzer (AUT)
After coming back from two sets down (and down 2-0 in the third) to beat Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, Jurgen Melzer turned to face his entourage in the baseline seats, put his hands on his hips, stood for a moment and just smiled. No raised arms, no fist pumps, no rolling on the ground -- just quiet satisfaction.
Melzer sports a Mickey Mouse soccer ball charm around his neck ("My girlfriend has the Minnie," he said afterward), but the way the journeyman saved the day against Djokovic was far more reminiscent of Mighty Mouse. His coach, Joakim Nystrom, said Melzer's tenacity stemmed from a game that has been reconstructed from the top down, adding fundamentals to fancy stuff.
"He's a lot more stable now," said Nystrom, the Swede who was a quarterfinalist here in 1985. "He had all the shots, but he didn't know how to play it safe. ... He had the extra; he can drop-shot or serve-and-volley, but he needed to feel the base was there."
Nystrom pushed Melzer to repeat cross-court shots from both sides over and over and over with identical technique. "He needed to feel the base was there," said the coach, who also worked with Melzer as a junior. "It's still a process, but it's much better. He had to feel, 'I can do this, even if I'm tight, even if I'm tired.'"
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Melzer called the Djokovic win the match of his life. He'll have to play two of those in a row to make his tilt with Nadal anything but another footnote to a coronation. Nadal is 20-0 on clay this season and hasn't dropped a set in Paris, posing what Nystrom, with classic understatement, calls "an interesting test." Nystrom said he plans to seek advice from his friend and fellow Swede, Magnus Norman, who coaches Soderling, who beat Nadal here last year: "Soderling doesn't have the same game plan, but maybe he can give me a few tips."
Nadal was irritated with himself for starting slowly in his quarterfinal match against fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro and had no problem giving Melzer -- whom he's beaten soundly in two previous meetings -- respect.
"He's playing unbelievable," said Nadal, who turned 24 Thursday. "[Wednesday] is a big comeback against Djokovic playing high level. I saw him in the end of the match playing very aggressive, serving well. So will be very difficult opponent. If he's in semifinals, is because he's the best of his draw."
Prediction: Mighty Melzer will come back to earth. Nadal in straight sets.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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