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Nadal to get challenge

Rafael Nadal's French Open quarter-final began more than 1 1/2 hours after Novak Djokovic's did Tuesday.<br />


Rafael Nadal's French Open quarter-final began more than 1 1/2 hours after Novak Djokovic's did Tuesday. Which is why, after wrapping up a three-set victory, Djokovic figured his coach could head over and check out some of Nadal's match.

So much for a fresh scouting report ahead of Friday's semifinals.

Turns out Nadal was only moments away from winning 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 against Nicolas Almagro, the most lopsided men's quarter-final at Roland Garros in the 40-year history of the Open era. Almagro's no slouch, by the way: He was seeded 19th and has won more matches on clay than anyone else this season.

"I told my coach - I think it was 6-1, 6-1, 5-1 - I told him, 'Look! Go! Go fast! See one game! Try to catch at least a game and see how it goes,"' Djokovic said. "'Maybe he'll play some bad shots."'

Not a chance. Hard as it is to believe, Nadal is playing more relentlessly than ever, treating each point - no, each and every stroke - as though the outcome hangs in the balance.

He's now 26-0 at the French Open for his career, two victories away from becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1978-81 to win the clay-court major championship four consecutive times.

Nadal has dropped a total of 25 games, the fewest ever lost through five full matches by a Grand Slam semifinalist in the Open era.

Meanwhile, Toronto's Daniel Nestor has advanced to the men's doubles semifinals after he and partner Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia posted a 6-1, 6-4 win over Belgians Steve Darcis and Olivier Rochus. Nestor is in the hunt for his second straight title at Roland Garros after he and former partner Mark Knowles won the doubles crown last year.

Djokovic beat 80th-ranked Ernests Gulbis 7-5, 7-6 (3), 7-5 to become only the fourth man since 1968 to reach five consecutive Grand Slam semifinals. He also earned the right to face Nadal, who is 113-2 on clay since April 2005.

A berth in Sunday's final - and Nadal's No. 2 ranking - will be on the line.

"He's been playing better and better," the No. 3-ranked Djokovic said. "But I don't want to go out there in the semis and just try my best. I don't want to do that. I want to win."

He's won only three of 10 matches with Nadal in their brief but rapidly ascendant careers, including exits from the French Open each of the past two years. Both are supremely talented, quite young - Nadal turned 22 on Tuesday; Djokovic turned 21 last month - and bent on stealing some of the prizes that otherwise would be headed for Roger Federer's trophy case.

"Anything can happen," Nadal said. "I know that if I'm not playing at 100 per cent, it's going to be very difficult for me to win this match."

The top-ranked Federer plays his quarter-final Wednesday against No. 24 Fernando Gonzalez, while No. 5 David Ferrer meets the unseeded Gael Monfils.

Nadal beat Federer at the French Open each of the past three years on his way to the title. Djokovic upset Federer at the Australian Open in January en route to his first major championship.

While Federer's No. 1 ranking is safe no matter what happens this week, Maria Sharapova will relinquish her status as the No. 1 woman. Sharapova, who took over the top spot when Justine Henin retired but lost in the fourth round in Paris, will be replaced by one of the players still in the draw: No. 2 Ana Ivanovic, No. 3 Jelena Jankovic or No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Ivanovic and Jankovic, two Serbs both seeking a first Grand Slam title, will meet in the semifinals Thursday after straightforward victories. Ivanovic beat No. 10 Patty Schnyder 6-3, 6-2, and Jankovic eliminated qualifier Carla Suarez Navarro by the same score.

Schnyder was asked whether Ivanovic - who lost the French Open final to Henin last year, and the Australian Open final to Sharapova in January - is ready to win a major championship.

"She would never be able to win against Justine, but now I think she can. Definitely," Schnyder said. "I mean, she has the power, and she has the strokes."

Kuznetsova, the 2004 U.S. Open champion, finished off her suspended fourth-round match by beating No. 16 Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 6-3. Kuznetsova's opponent Wednesday is Kaia Kanepi, the first Estonian to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final. Wednesday's other match is No. 7 Elena Dementieva vs. No. 13 Dinara Safina, who ousted Sharapova.

While they've never played as professionals, Kanepi did beat Kuznetsova in the 2001 French Open junior final.

"It doesn't mean much now, because she's a completely different player. So (am) I," Kuznetsova said. "So it's a box of surprises probably coming."

There were very little in the way of unknowns when Djokovic and the 19-year-old Gulbis stepped on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Even though it was their first matchup at this level, they first met about seven years ago as students at a tennis academy in Germany.

Preparing to walk from the locker room, Djokovic tapped Gulbis on the side, and they traded a few words and smiles. Once play began, Djokovic tried to give his pal a tough time, but Gulbis was able to keep things interesting, thanks largely to saving 11 consecutive break points in the first set.

Not until the 12th game of the match, and Djokovic's 12th break point, did Gulbis finally crack. On Djokovic's fourth set point at 6-5, a 16-stroke exchange culminated with Gulbis stumbling a bit as he pushed a forehand into the net. Djokovic raised his arms and looked skyward, exhaling.

There was still work to be done, including overcoming an early break in the second set, and another break by Gulbis when Djokovic first served for the match. But there seemed little doubt Djokovic's record in major quarter-finals would improve to 5-1, and Gulbis' would drop to 0-1.

"He won with experience," Gulbis said. "Exactly this: He played much better than me on the important points."

Nadal was much better than Almagro on nearly every point, finishing with a remarkably low total of nine unforced errors - 27 fewer than his opponent.

Which is part of the reason an established pro like Almagro managed to win only three more games against Nadal than you or I would.

"When Rafa plays like that, there is nothing you can say. Just congratulate him, wish him 'Happy Birthday,' and wish him all the best for the rest of this tournament," Almagro said. "Quite clearly, we'll have a champion for many years here at Roland Garros."

 
 
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