Commentary

Rafa puts the hammer down

Updated: June 2, 2010, 4:08 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

He's already won six Grand Slam singles titles, and he's sporting a $525,000 Richard Mille watch. Nearly five years younger than Roger Federer, he holds the record for ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles, with 18, after winning Madrid.

How about a gift card for another French Open title? That would be five in the past six years for Rafael Nadal, who turns 24 on Thursday.

On Wednesday evening, the muscular Spaniard let countryman Nicolas Almagro run off with an early lead, then mercilessly put the hammer down, winning 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-4.

There was far greater drama in the other quarterfinal, where a 29-year-old Austrian wore down No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic. Or rather, Djokovic -- attempting to reach his third Roland Garros semifinal opposite Nadal -- let the match spin from his grasp.

Jurgen Melzer survived the 4-hour, 15-minute match, 3-6, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (2), 6-4, and he'll meet Rafa in an all-lefty matchup.

In 31 previous Grand Slam events, Melzer had never been past the third round. Now, he's a win away from the finals. After going 0-for-10 in his career, he's now beaten a top-10 player for the first time in a Grand Slam event.

Robin Soderling, who has taken down two defending French Open champions in two years now, faces Tomas Berdych in the other semifinal.

Those matches could produce a sweet and savory final between Nadal and Soderling. Was Rafa surprised that Soderling beat Federer?

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic was up two sets and a break before bowing out in the quarterfinals.

"Robin played unbelievable," Nadal said. "His serve was very difficult. All the balls he touched were 100 percent. Very difficult to win against Robin when he plays like that."

Is he plotting revenge?

"I never think abut revenge," Nadal said. "I have [a] semifinal against Melzer. [It] will be very difficult. If you think of [revenge], your mind is not 100 percent on what you have to do."

Almagro possesses some breathtaking skills, and he's comfortable on the red clay here at Roland Garros, where he reached the only other major quarterfinal of his career, in 2008, and was beaten by a certain left-handed, hard-hitting baseliner. But in the crucible of those tiebreakers, Almagro was physically and mentally overmatched.

What Almagro -- and the three other remaining semifinalists -- are up against was on display in the fifth game on Court Philippe Chatrier. Running at full speed to his right, Nadal tracked down a shot, stretched across his body and chipped a lefty backhand over the net, spun 360 degrees, then sprinted back the other way and ripped a lunging forehand winner. Both shots were struck off the court -- well outside the doubles lines. One shot later, Rafa got the match back on serve and Almagro had lost his advantage forever.

No evidence has emerged over the past 11 days that anyone but Nadal will leave wearing the crown. As if he needed any additional incentive, a victory will return him to the No. 1 ranking he first ran down two years ago.

In five matches so far, Nadal has yet to lose a set -- although he was extended to his first tiebreaker by Almagro. And, in shades of 2006-07, when he won 81 straight matches on clay, Rafa has won all 20 of his matches on clay this year. Moreover, he's dropped only two sets, one to Ernests Gulbis in Rome -- and one to Almagro in Rome.

Nadal has now beaten Almagro each of the seven times they've played. They split the first two points of the first-set tiebreaker, but Rafa won six of the next seven points, the last a gorgeous backhand crosscourt winner. The second tiebreaker was equally devoid of drama, and Nadal just had to endure another grinding set before heading to the locker room.

Djokovic, who was in position to also win in straight sets, let the fourth -- which featured a numbing nine-deuce game and ran for a total of 79 minutes -- slip away. The player whose fitness and health have been questioned was forced to go deep into his meager reserves.

Melzer scored the ultimate break at 4-all in the fifth set when Djokovic, already at the net, stretched for a backhand volley. It failed to clear the net and Melzer served out the match.

Will Rafa celebrate his birthday tomorrow?

"I will celebrate in the day, but not the night," Nadal said, laughing. "I will have plenty of time [at home] in Majorca to celebrate in the night."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.