Britain is separated from France by just 20-odd miles of water but the gulf that cross-Channel venturers have to bridge here at their neighbours' historic Grand Slam tournament is usually as wide as an ocean. Seventy-four years after a Briton last reached the final of the French Open, Andy Murray will attempt to match Bunny Austin's achievement of 1937 when he plays in tomorrow's semi-finals. The only problem is that the man standing in his path is arguably the greatest clay-court player in history.
Murray will take on Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, after both players won their quarter-finals in straight sets yesterday. Murray, making light of the torn ankle tendon that had threatened his participation in the tournament, beat Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela 7-6, 7-5, 6-2, while Nadal was too good for Sweden's Robin Soderling, the only man to have beaten him in his previous 43 matches on these courts, winning 6-4, 6-1, 7-6.
The results ensured that the top four men would meet in the last four of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time for five years. In the other semi-final Novak Djokovic will attempt to extend his extraordinary unbeaten run to 44 matches when he takes on Roger Federer. If he reaches his first French Open final Djokovic will replace Nadal at the top of the world rankings.
Only one Briton, Fred Perry, has won the title here, in 1935, while Austin is the only other of his countrymen to reach the final. Just two Britons have reached the semi-finals since Austin: Mike Sangster, who lost to Roy Emerson in 1963, and Tim Henman, beaten by Guillermo Coria in 2004.
Murray, who has now reached the semi-finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments, has lost 10 of his 14 meetings with Nadal, though the Spaniard, who will celebrate his 25th birthday tomorrow, often brings the best out of him. Murray has twice beaten him at Grand Slam tournaments, taken him to three sets on clay at Monte Carlo two months ago and stretched him to the limit in one of the matches of the year in London in November.
The Scot said Nadal's French Open record was "incredible" and described playing him as one of the greatest challenges. "I have to be mentally strong," Murray said. "Tactically I'm going to have to be very good. I can definitely win. I just need to play my best.
"Obviously, it's going to be an incredibly difficult match for me. I need to make sure over the next day and a half that I do all the right things, watch some videos of matches that I played against him, and recover. You're going to need all of your reserves to get through a match with Rafa at the French." Nadal said the semi-final would be "a very tough match". He added: "In Rome Andy played a fantastic match against Djokovic in the semi-finals. He came closer to beating him than anybody else this year."
Although Murray never looked in serious danger of losing to Chela he took his supporters on a circuitous route before reaching his destination after two hours and 53 minutes. A topsy-turvy match, played in glorious sunshine but in an unpredictable wind on Court Suzanne Lenglen, featured 13 breaks of serve and frequent shifts of momentum.
The world No 4 was still nursing the ankle injury he had suffered in the third round but played with more freedom and ran, slid and turned with renewed confidence. Chela, 31, had lost to Murray in their previous six matches, including here in 2009 and 2010, but of the men currently active on the circuit, only Nadal, David Ferrer, Juan-Carlos Ferrero and Tommy Robredo have won more matches on clay than the world No 34.
Murray made too many early errors, going for shots he did not need to make, and Chela broke twice to take a 4-1 lead. Murray reduced the arrears to 5-3 but had to save two set points in the following game, the second with a wonderful angled winner after chasing down a drop shot. Chela squandered another set point in the next game with a double-fault and was comprehensively outplayed in the tie-break, which Murray won 7-2.
When he took a 4-1 lead in the second set Murray appeared in control, but things are rarely simple when the Scot is on court. There were six breaks of serve in seven games before he finally served out for the set, completing the job with an ace. The final set went more smoothly, Murray breaking in the first and seventh games before sealing victory on his first match point with a trademark drop shot.
"It was a really scrappy match," Murray admitted afterwards. "I didn't start particularly well and then got a little bit better. I started moving a bit better towards the end of the first set. Then I got up in the second and lost concentration a bit, which you can't afford to do against someone like Juan, who has a lot of experience on this surface. That's something I definitely won't get away with against Rafa."
Nadal, who is attempting to become only the second man to win this title six times, took another step towards matching Bjorn Borg's achievement with his most convincing performance here so far this year. After his previous match the world No 1 had said he was not playing well enough to defend his title, but he was much more like his old self against Soderling.
"Today I played much better," Nadal said. "I said two days ago that I was not playing well enough to win Roland Garros. We will see in two days."
There is no way Murray will underestimate his opponent. "He's still playing pretty well, so I know Rafa will play excellent tennis against me," Murray said. "Pretty much every time we've played we've had some really good matches and he's always played well."
Murray said he was surprised to be in the semi-finals given his patchy form but added: "I'm happy that I'm in the semis but I want to go further. It's not worth going through what I've gone through the last four or five days to just be happy getting to the semis."
French Open results
Men's Singles Quarter-finals R Nadal (Sp) bt R Soderling (Swe) 6-4 6-1 7-6; A Murray (GB) bt J I Chela (Arg) 7-6 7-5 6-2.
Women's Singles Quarter-finals N Li (Chin) bt V Azarenka (Bela) 7-5 6-2; M Sharapova (Rus) bt A Petkovic (Ger) 6-0 6-3.
Men's Doubles Qtr-finals B Bryan (US) & M Bryan (US) bt R Bopanna (India) & Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi (Pak) 6-7 6-3 7-6.
Women's Doubles Semi-finals A Hlavackova (Cz Rep) & L Hradecka (Cz Rep) leads V King (US) & Y Shvedova (Kaz) 6-3.
Mixed Doubles Semi-finals K Srebotnik (Sloven) & N Zimonjic (Serb) bt N Petrova (Rus) & J Murray (GB) 7-6 7-6; C Dellacqua (Aus) & S Lipsky (US) bt J Gajdosova (Slovak) & T Bellucci (Br) 7-6 2-6 14-12 .