PARIS — Playing a bit like he’s still upset about his only loss at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal defeated Robin Soderling 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (3) Wednesday to reach the French Open semifinals for the sixth time.
The five-time champion, who lost to Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 but then defeated him in last year’s final, is 43-1 at the clay-court Grand Slam and two wins away from equalling Bjorn Borg’s record of six French Open titles.
“I am through. I’m in the semifinals, so that’s the thing,” Nadal said.
“I have to be playing better and better every day if I want to have chances to win the final and that’s what I’m going to try.”
Nadal will next face fourth-seeded Andy Murray. The Australian Open runner-up, who injured his right ankle in the third round, defeated Juan Ignacio Chela 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-2.
“In my opinion, that’s not going to affect him and his confidence to be in the semifinal,” Nadal said of Murray’s injury. “He’s playing well. He’s (a) big player.”
Murray’s win ensured that the top four seeded players made the semifinals at a Grand Slam tournament for only the 12th time in the Open era.
Also, Maria Sharapova and Australian Open finalist Li Na reached the women’s semifinals. They will face each other Thursday.
Nadal was back on Court Philippe Chatrier to face the man who was responsible for his only blemish at Roland Garros. But with the wind gusting — at one point blowing specks of red clay into Nadal’s face — the fifth-seeded Swede struggled with his first serve, landing only 57 per cent during the match.
“It’s always difficult to play when it’s windy, but it’s the same for both players,” Soderling said. “In the beginning it was tough to serve really well. I think first two sets was pretty windy, and then it got a little bit easier, a little bit calmer in the third set.”
Nadal, however, didn’t appear to be bothered by the conditions, although he was broken twice. The top-ranked Spaniard made only 13 unforced errors, while Soderling had 41.
“Probably Robin today had a few more mistakes than usual. That maybe helped me a little bit,” Nadal said. “I was lucky for a moment.”
Emotionless for almost the entire match, Nadal was able to handle Soderling’s hard forehand while keeping his opponent on the move by spraying shots to all corners of the court.
And when he smacked a forehand winner to hold serve to 6-5 in the third set, the crowd roared.
After five titles in Paris, Nadal had plenty of fans in the stands, and even some admirers. Besides the Spanish flags throughout the stadium, one woman held up a sign reading, “Rafa ganador, kiss me por favor” (“Rafa you winner, kiss me please”).
Friday’s other semifinal will be between defending champion Roger Federer and the seemingly unstoppable Novak Djokovic. The second-seeded Djokovic is 41-0 in 2011 and has won 43 straight matches dating to last year’s Davis Cup final triumph for Serbia.
“The best player of the world today against the best player (in) history,” Nadal said. “Going to be, in my opinion, fantastic match.”
Nadal’s semifinal opponent also had an easy time Wednesday.
Murray, who tore a tendon in his right ankle last week but still managed to win a five-setter in the fourth round, trailed Chela 4-1 in the first set before winning five of six games to force the tiebreaker. He broke early in both the next two sets and held on to reach his first French Open semifinal.
“I feel I can do it,” Murray said of his chances at Roland Garros. “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.”
While Murray is in the French Open semifinals for the first time in his career, Sharapova returned to the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in more than three years, beating Andrea Petkovic 6-0, 6-3.
The three-time major champion, who can complete a career Grand Slam with a title at Roland Garros, last reached this stage when she won the 2008 Australian Open.
“I put a lot of work in to be in this stage of the Grand Slams,” Sharapova said. “I’m really happy that it’s here. I’m going to have a chance to go further.”