Monday 27 March 2017

Tennis: Nadal and Fed Express set on collision course

Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating Thomaz Bellucci in the French Open at Roland Garros yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating Thomaz Bellucci in the French Open at Roland Garros yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Martyn Herman

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have not put a foot wrong so far at this year's French Open and all signs point to the world's two outstanding men's players duelling for the title on Sunday.

There are still some pitfalls lurking on the Parisian clay, however, and the quarter-finals will be a better yardstick of their form after they both arrived at the business end of the tournament with a 12-0 sets record.

Today, Federer faces Robin Soderling, the man he beat in last year's final to complete a career Grand Slam after the Swede cleared the decks with a sensational victory over Nadal.

Four-times champion Nadal, hungry to prove that last year's fourth-round shocker against Soderling was an aberration, will have to overcome fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, a player whose five career titles have all been on clay.

Since beating Nadal last year, Soderling has transformed himself into a genuine top-10 player and his form here has been only marginally less impressive than Federer's.

He has never beaten the Swiss master in 12 attempts, though, and Federer oozed confidence when he looked ahead to another clash with the powerhouse Swede.

"He's going to be fitter than in the past when I played him during the third round or second round," Federer said. "But I'm really looking forward to this match because he hits very strongly, forehand, backhand and serves. This is what I like. This is why I have a good record against him."

Soderling knows the odds are against him, but his body language suggests a player who believes he can beat anybody when his game clicks into place.

"Even against Roger you will always get a few chances," he said. "Then you have to take them, because he won't give you any second opportunities. You have to play well in the important points, which he does so well, that's why he's so good."

Threat

After a patchy start against French teenage wildcard Gianni Mina, Nadal's game has gone up several levels and he appears to be peaking at the right time, but he is still not taking the threat posed by Almagro lightly.

"It's going to be complicated, he's going to be very aggressive, but I'll do my best to make him feel uncomfortable," Nadal said after beating Brazil's Thomaz Bellucci in straight sets.

Despite creating a similar number of break-points as his illustrious opponent, the 24th seed was ultimately beaten in straight sets -- 6-2 7-5 6-4.

Jurgen Melzer became the first Austrian to reach the quarter-finals since Thomas Muster in 1998 with a 7-6 4-6 6-1 6-4 win over Russian qualifier Teimuraz Gabashvili.

Gabashvili missed three set points in the opener as he dropped his first set of the tournament. He levelled the match with some eye-catching winners, but Melzer, making his first appearance in a Grand Slam last 16, then took command, cantering through the third set before breaking serve decisively in the ninth game of the fourth.

Melzer, at 29 the oldest player remaining in the men's draw, will next face world No 3 Novak Djokovic, who continued his serene progress with an ultimately comfortable 6-4 2-6 6-1 6-2 victory over American Robby Ginepri.

As if the regulars at Roland Garros hadn't had enough to deal with recently, with the speculation that the tournament could move to a site near Disneyland Paris, they had to cope with the sight of Justine Henin losing a match here for the first time in six years as she lost to Sam Stosur.

When Henin had dropped a set in her previous match, against Maria Sharapova, that had been newsworthy enough -- as it was the first set she had lost in Paris since 2005 -- but yesterday she lost a couple more and was beaten in three by the Australian.

While it would be going too far to suggest that Henin had been the clear favourite for La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, many observers had imagined that the Belgian, who was playing the first French Open of her second career, had the class to win in Paris again.

After all, Henin is the most successful clay-court player of her generation. She was the French Open champion for the first time in 2003, gathered three more titles between 2005 and 2007, and retired just before the 2008 championships.

At the Australian Open, Henin finished as runner-up to Serena Williams, and the expectation was that she and the world No 1 would resume their rivalry in the quarter-finals in Paris.

What we ended up with was Henin's first defeat at Roland Garros since she lost to Italy's Tathiana Garbin in the second round of the 2004 championships, with Stosur, a semi-finalist last season, coming from a set down to win 2-6 6-1 6-4.

Henin's attentions are already turning to the grass. One of her motivations for returning to the sport was that she is a Wimbledon title short of a full collection of Grand Slam trophies, and it would mean so much to her to win the Venus Rosewater Dish for the first time.

Meanwhile, fourth-seed Jelena Jankovic eased past Daniela Hantuchova 6-4 6-2 to book her place in the quarter-finals.

French Open,

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