Five matches into his quest to defend his Roland Garros title, Rafael Nadal is still waiting for an opponent who can take a set from him, after defeating Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals, 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-3.
That’s not a statement intended to denigrate his opponents, but rather a measure of Nadal’s superiority on this surface. Almagro, who has won more matches on clay than any other player this season, opened the match with crisp hitting off both wings, helping him keep points short. His obvious liability against Nadal is his one-handed backhand, but that was actually the finest feature of his play today. With the slow conditions helping to keep the ball low, Almagro consistently stepped in and took the ball early off that wing, ripping some magnificent winners.
Nadal, who opened the match with a double-fault, was making an unusually high number of errors as a result of mistimed shots. Neither player saw a break point throughout the first set, but when it mattered most—serving to open the tiebreaker—Almagro made a disastrous mistake, following a respectable serve with an attempt at a forehand drop shot, which plumped dismally into the net. Nadal won one more point against serve, ending a marathon rally with a winning forehand down the line, and took a set in which he had been the second-best player—except when it mattered most.
With Almagro reeling, Nadal pressed his advantage early in the second set, breaking to lead 3-1 off a sharply-angled return which his compatriot could not get back. He continued to look less than his best, however: His first-serve percentage dropped to 46 percent, and there was a distinct lack of aggression showing in most of the points. Almagro had a chance to break back at 4-2 after a poor miss from Nadal, but could not capitalize, and was shortly afterwards broken for the set himself.
As the third set began, the rain started to fall and play was suspended with Almagro serving at 0-1. The break was only a couple of minutes, but it seemed to revitalize Almagro, who returned to the penetrating offense with which he had opened the match. At 2-2, a fearsome backhand return earned him a break point; on it, he stepped in for his best shot—the ripped cross-court backhand—but missed it wide to squander his best opportunity of the match.
Almagro could do nothing on the second break point of the game, when he faced a big serve, but at 3-3 he saw another chance on Nadal’s serve, only to put a forehand down the line wide. It surprised no one when Almagro, serving next, double-faulted to give up break point; Nadal’s ridiculously good retrieving earned him the chance to serve for the match, sealing it with his 10th ace. It was a predictable ending to a match in which Almagro could not execute his attacking tennis well enough in key moments to overcome Nadal’s superior defense.