Rafael Nadal's confidence growing
PARIS -- This is no lowly journeyman talking, it's five-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal giving a rundown of his performances at the tournament throughout the years. Imagine if he ever became consistent?
In 2006: "I think I didn't play well during all the tournament."
In 2007: "I played normal."
In 2008: "I played fantastic -- especially quarterfinals, semifinals and final."
In 2009: "I think I played terrible all the tournament."
In 2010: "I played so-so. Much better semifinals and finals than previous matches."
Nadal has been just as hard on himself during this year's event. "The problem is I am not playing enough aggressive," he said. "I don't watch the ball enough well to go inside, to hit the ball, changing direction with the forehands. Probably I am playing a little bit nervous, and that's why legs didn't work as well as usual."
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There was one area he was happy with: his "fantastic attitude." "If I didn't play my best, I was there all the time," he said. "I fight [for] every ball and all the time trying to find solutions to play better."
He obviously succeeded, because then came an impressive, dominating performance against Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals, a straight-sets win over the only player ever to have beaten him here. Surely he was happy with that, right? "Today I played better," he conceded. "Much better, in my opinion."
His equally demanding uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, agreed, telling French television that his nephew was playing his best match of the tournament.
Andy Murray can only brace himself if Nadal comes out for their semifinal playing what he would consider "well." But Nadal's assessments are not entirely self-effacing. By his high standards, he has not been as intimidating as usual. Instead of sweeping the clay season with just an odd loss somewhere, he has dropped two finals to Novak Djokovic, part of a run of four straight losses to the Serb. But even below his best, Nadal is a mighty force.
After escaping John Isner in the first round, he scrapped through this next three rounds, improving a little each time. Against Soderling, the Spaniard knew he would have to move up a gear -- and responded.
Having found his form, he is expected to be the fearsome Nadal of old for the rest of the tournament.
As if that wasn't enough for Murray to deal with, Britain's finest also will be battling a sore ankle when he faces Nadal. He has suffered a partial tear of a tendon and is taking painkillers and receiving intensive treatment to get through matches. Despite starting slowly in both his last two matches, he has managed to take advantage of a soft draw to reach the semifinals here for the first time.
"I haven't been playing that well. I'm in the semis of a Slam. That's a good sign," Murray said.
Against Nadal, however, he will have to be on the move from the very beginning. "I can definitely win," Murray said. "It's just making sure that come Friday I play my best tennis. I have to play a very consistent match, and I have to be mentally strong. Tactically I'm going to have to be very good.
"I understand obviously it's going to be an incredibly difficult match for me. But, that's [why] I need to make sure the next sort of day and a half, two days, I do all the right things, watch some videos of matches that I played against him and recover. Because you're going to need all of your reserves to get through a match with Rafa at the French."
At least Murray has been through a similar situation during this clay season, taking Nadal to three sets in the semifinals of the Monte Carlo Masters despite an elbow problem.
It means Nadal is on his guard. "Playing five-set matches and today playing a tough match and keep winning -- probably he have pain, but the pain is not limiting," the defending champion said.
He was unaware it is not just a turned ankle, that another fall could result in more damage and hinder Murray's campaign at Wimbledon.
"I think probably that the pain is on the ankle, just turned ankle," Nadal said. "In my opinion, that's not gonna affect him and his confidence to be in the semifinal. He's playing well. He's big player."
The Spaniard is not taking Murray lightly, but he has won all three of their previous meetings on clay, and the best-of-five format will only make Murray's task harder. On the other hand, the injury seems to have sharpened Murray's focus. He has been forced to go for his shots and delivered at the important moments.
"He has all the shots," Nadal said. "He can defend very well, he can attack very well, he runs fantastic. The only [way] you can beat him is playing at very, very high level."
But, he added, "It's not going to be impossible."
Translation: He's quietly confident.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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