Djokovic increases the heat on Nadal

Like a middle-distance front-runner trying to hold off his challengers, Rafael Nadal turned into the French Open finishing straight yesterday with Novak Djokovic at his shoulder and Roger Federer poised to make his own break for the line.

Nadal could hardly have made more convincing progress on his way to Friday's semi-finals, crushing Nicolas Almagro 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, but if the world No 2 is to become the first man since Bjorn Borg to win a fourth successive title here, the odds are that he will have to beat his two greatest rivals. Next is Djokovic, the most successful player in the world this year, while Federer, who meets Fernando Gonalzalez in the quarters today, is looking the most likely finalist from the other half of the draw.

Also at stake on Friday will be Nadal's world No 2 ranking. Djokovic, who beat his boyhood friend Ernests Gulbis 7-5, 7-6, 7-5 to reach the last four, has been whittling down Nadal's lead ever since winning his first Masters series title 15 months ago and will overtake the Spaniard if he beats him on clay for the first time.

Djokovic has won three of their 10 meetings, but each victory has been on a hard court, Nadal's least favoured surface. The Spaniard has won all four of their matches on clay, in the quarter-finals here in 2006, in the semi-finals here and the quarter-finals in Rome last year and in the semi-finals in Hamburg last month. Djokovic has won only one of their 10 sets on clay.

There is, nevertheless, a seeming inevitability about Djokovic's pursuit of the two players who have dominated men's tennis for the last three years. The 21-year-old Serb has never been short of confidence, but since winning his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January his self-belief has looked all but unshakeable.

Since losing the first set against Denis Gremelmayr in the first round here Djokovic has not dropped another one. Gulbis, a dashing 19-year-old Latvian enjoying the best run of his career, matched his former fellow pupil at the Niki Pilic academy in Munich for long periods, but when it came down to the key points his previously potent forehand started to creak. If the world No 80's 54 winners (compared with Djokovic's 32) were evidence of his bold approach, so his 60 unforced errors (Djokovic made 36) told their own story.

All three sets followed a similar pattern, with little to choose between the two men until Djokovic went for the kill at the first smell of blood. The first was tight and finished only when Gulbis dropped his serve after netting a poor forehand. Breaks were exchanged in the second before the tie-break ended with Gulbis, wobbling under the pressure of Djokovic's relentless consistency, made three successive errors.

When Djokovic served for the match at 5-4 in the third set Gulbis played a magnificent game to break back, only to drop his own serve immediately.

Nadal, who was celebrating his 22nd birthday and was presented with a cake on leaving the court, utterly overwhelmed Almagro, Andy Murray's third-round conqueror. Nobody has won more matches on clay this year than Almagro, but the world No 20 seemed over-awed by an opponent for whom he has enormous respect.

Almagro won only 10 points in the first set and the match ended in appropriate fashion after an hour and 44 minutes when he put an easy smash into the net. Although there were question marks over Nadal's fitness coming into the tournament, he has yet to be tested physically. The Spaniard has not dropped a set and has lost only 25 games in his five matches.

Djokovic thinks Nadal is playing better than ever. "I think he's improved his serve a lot this year and he's going for some of his shots much more," he said. "He combines that with his great physical strength and his patience is impressive on this surface. But I don't want to go out there in the semis and just try my best. I want to win and I think I have a good chance."

Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin visits her 1990s work ‘My Bed’ at Tate Britain in London, where it is back on display from today
artsBut how does the iconic work stand up, 16 years on?
Life and Style
life + style
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor