Injury to Djokovic eases path for Nadal

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The Independent Online

The French Open is usually the most unpredictable of the four Grand Slam events. Gaston Gaudio, the winner here two years ago, was unseeded, as were Martin Verkerk and Mariano Puerta, beaten finalists in 2003 and 2005. Semi-finalists in the last 10 years include never-to-be-remembered names like Filip Dewulf, Fernando Meligeni and Franco Squillari.

This year's tournament will go down as the exception that proves the rule. For the first time since 1985, when John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander contested the closing stages, the semi-finals feature the top four seeds. The defending champion, Rafael Nadal, who is seeded No 2, and Ivan Ljubicic, the No 4, yesterday joined Roger Federer and David Nalbandian in the last four. Novak Djokovic retired with a back injury when trailing 6-4, 6-4 to Nadal, while the unseeded Julien Benneteau was unable to convert the passionate support of his home crowd against Ljubicic, who won 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

A cynic might suggest that Djokovic, in going outwhile suffering an injury, successfully came through the first phase of the process of becoming a British player. The 19-year-old Serb, whose family are considering a move to Britain, started to feel pain in his back in the second set. A fall after he had received treatment exacerbated the problem and he retired three points into the third set.

Djokovic had been hitting the ball well enough before the injury, but Nadal, winning his 58th match in succession on clay, rarely looked in danger. Not that Djokovic saw it that way. The Serb, who is one week younger than Andy Murray, felt that he had been in control and complained that Nadal hit "two or three lucky shots" in what proved to be the decisive game of the first set.

Nadal diplomatically sidestepped a question about Djokovic's analysis but agreed that he had lost concentration as a result of his opponent's injury problems. "I didn't understand it," the Spaniard said. "Every time he served he put his hand on his back, but then he'd play a normal point."

Djokovic's mother met Lawn Tennis Association officials in Glasgow in April while her eldest son - Novak has two younger brothers who are also highly promising players - was helping Serbia and Montenegro beat Britain in the Davis Cup. Novak has subsequently tried to dampen down speculation about his becoming a British citizen, after which he would have to wait at least three years before being allowed to play for Britain in the Davis Cup.

Asked how he might cope with being the centre of attention at the Stella Artois Championships in London next week, Djokovic hinted that he might miss Queen's, though he said he would certainly play at Wimbledon.

"I've been under a lot of pressure over this," Djokovic said. "I don't want to think about it or talk about it any more. I just need to focus. Today I was feeling a lot of pressure, even from my own country. I don't need that. I'm only 19 and playing tennis is a tough life."

Ljubicic might have thought he was facing a major battle to reach his first Grand Slam semi-final when the first three games, in which Benneteau broke the Croat's serve twice, took 25 minutes. However, the French No 10, who is ranked 95 in the world, was unable to match the inspired play which had seen him overcome Marcos Baghdatis and Radek Stepanek in previous rounds and won only five more games.

Women's semi-finals (today): S Kuznetsova (Rus) v N Vaidisova (CzRep); K Clijsters (Bel) v J Henin-Hardenne (Bel).

Men's semi-finals (tomorrow): R Federer (Swit) v D Nalbandian Arg); I Ljubicic (Croa) v R Nadal (Sp).

* Adidas yesterday won a temporary High Court injunction against an attempt by the tennis authorities to limit the size of the company's logo on players' clothing with effect from the start of Wimbledon later this month. The case will go to a full trial in October.

* Elena Baltacha will be out of action for the rest of the year after undergoing keyhole surgery yesterday on a prolapsed disc. The 22-year-old British No 2 hopes to return early in 2007.