On a warm day that dulled the senses but not the reflexes or the perspective of the favourites, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic cruised in different gears towards a semi-final on Friday that has been billed as the "real final" of this French Open.
That might be harsh on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or David Ferrer, who contest the other semi-final, but it reflects the almost universal view, so accustomed are we to seeing one of the Big Four in a major decider. Tsonga's three-set win over Roger Federer on Tuesday briefly disturbed that perception and, for the first time since Tomas Berdych intruded on the 2010 final at Wimbledon, there will be a chance for someone else to stand tall in a major. But can either of those beat either of these? Tsonga has the better chance.
"The draw is what it is," said Djokovic, who beat Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo. "I don't want to talk about 'what if'. We're in a semi-final, I have a big challenge in front of me and I'm ready for it. We've played each other over 30 times. He's lost only a few times since he came back and you've got to respect that."
If there were any form-line to be drawn through their quarter-finals, it may be that Tommy Haas, the 35-year-old German who has rebuilt his career to stand at No14 in the world, gave Djokovic a harder time of it over three sets in two and a quarter hours than the 9th seed, Stanislas Wawrinka, did in just under two hours against Nadal.
"It was a good performance in general," Djokovic said. "In the important points I came up with some good shots but I could have done better, could have done the job earlier but he came back with some good points."
Nadal was slightly more upbeat. "It was my best match of the tournament, without any doubt," he said. "The numbers were good but the most important thing is the feeling. I'm happy."
He might have bagelled the Swiss had an outrageous, flat-on-his-back volley at the net not inched wide in the sixth game of the third set. He settled for serving out to love to win 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 and had that muscular air of old about him.
The Spaniard may be a slight favourite to repeat last year's final, when he handled the overnight break in play better than Djokovic to win his seventh title – whereas a couple of days ago the sentiment was with the Serb, who, until he dropped a set against Philipp Kohlschreiber in the fourth round, had a clean sheet. Nadal, in that spell, twice had to come from a set down to reach the second week.
Now the conditions are near-perfect for Nadal, a mild blast of sun (with more to come) having given his favoured red dirt more grip and bounce, turning him from just plain formidable into a nightmare, with his top-spun forehands steepling into armpits again. Nadal also embarrassed Wawrinka in the final set with brutal hitting down both flanks, some from outrageous angles, a few on the run, testimony to the solidity of his suspect knee.
"Probably he was a little bit tired," Nadal said, charitably. "I feel sorry for him – he's having a great season. But I'm really happy the way I played today. I had a difficult week but the last two matches were more positive."
No sooner had Nadal towelled down, changed his shirt (to the delight of the fans) and given his on-court summary, than Djokovic closed Haas out at 6-3, 7-6, 7-5. The US-based German had a 2013 win over Djokovic in his mental kitbag and it clearly lifted him – but not far enough.
There was psychic baggage everywhere. From the moment Wawrinka dropped the first service game of the match, somewhere lurking in the thoughts of this shy and quietly spoken man will have been the nagging statistic, 9-0: the Nadal count against him in as many encounters. It takes a strong mind to cope with a mountain of that magnitude.
Half an hour later Wawrinka was serving at 1-5 and 30-30. When he failed to finish what had been a high-quality rally with an intemperate backhand that billowed the net, he took his frustrations out on the racket, bending it into an ugly mess. Thereafter he did well to keep vaguely in touch with the champion. In the third set his mountain grew into a volcano and it exploded ferociously at the end.
In different parts of the tennis universe two British players thrived. The fifth seed Kyle Edmund beat the American Noah Rubin 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 to advance to the fourth round of the boys' championship here. And, in a Challenger tournament in Nottingham, the Davis Cup hero Dan Evans had a remarkable first-round win over Ryan Harrison, bagelling him in the second set and winning in a third-set tie-break, 6-7, 6-0, 7-6.
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