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."