Andy Murray lost in the quarter-finals of the Madrid Masters last night but the world No 4 will head for the French Open next week in good heart.
For the second time in a fortnight Murray was beaten by David Ferrer, who was won more matches on clay than any other player this season, but it was arguably the Scot's best performance on the surface this year.
Ferrer won in 96 minutes when the two men met in Rome, but this time the world No 12 was detained for 35 minutes longer before winning 7-5, 6-3 to secure a semi-final today against Roger Federer. With Rafael Nadal facing Nicolas Almagro, Federer will be the gatecrasher at a Spanish party.
Murray, who celebrates his 23rd birthday today, has improved with each match during the clay-court season but was unfortunate to meet an opponent who has won a remarkable 27 matches on the surface this year. Ferrer struck the ball beautifully from the start and raced into a 3-0 lead. Murray, never the less, played his way back into the match, which quickly developed into a contest of the highest quality.
From 5-2 down Murray won three games in a row and forced a break point at 5-5, but Ferrer held firm. In the following game the Scot saved a first set point with a superb cross-court backhand but could do nothing as Ferrer struck a forehand winner on the second. The Spaniard seemed to have taken a decisive grip when he again won the first three games at the start of the second set, but Murray brought the score level before Ferrer made what proved a decisive break to lead 5-3.
Nadal's bandwagon showed no signs of slowing down as the world No 3 raced into the semi-finals with a crushing 6-1, 6-3 victory over Gaël Monfils. Nadal's 13th win in his 13 matches on clay this year puts him within one victory of taking back the No 2 position in the world rankings from Novak Djokovic. He is chasing his third successive Masters Series title and his 18th overall, which would be a record.
Nadal could be on course for a final rematch tomorrow with Federer, who beat the Spaniard 12 months ago. Federer reached the last four by beating Ernests Gulbis 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, avenging his defeat by the Latvian in Rome a fortnight ago.
Aravane Rezai provided one of the surprises of the week in the women's tournament, beating Jelena Jankovic 7-5, 6-4. The Frenchwoman now plays Lucie Safarova, who beat Nadia Petrova. The improving Shahar Peer reached her fifth semi-final of the year when she beat Li Na 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. She next meets Venus Williams, who dropped only five games against Sam Stosur.
*Nikolay Davydenko and Kim Clijsters have withdrawn from the French Open, which begins next weekend, due to wrist and ankle injuries respectively.