Spain's Rafael Nadal reacts as he plays compatriot David Ferrer during their quarterfinals match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, Tuesday May 31, 2005 in Paris. Nadal won 7-5, 6-2, 6-0.
AP Photo/Francois Mori
PARIS Imperious and nearly impervious, Roger Federer plays the beautiful game. Muscular and macho, Rafael Nadal is, like the uncle who inspired him, ''The Beast.''
Federer is the top player, Nadal the hottest, and their straight-sets victories on a cool, overcast afternoon at the French Open on Tuesday set up a semifinal collision that they, and virtually everyone else, knew was coming.
The only shame is that the duel between the Swiss and the Spaniard, the best players on the ATP Tour this year with 11 titles between them, is not for the championship.
Federer's 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-3 quarterfinal win against Romania's Victor Hanescu was as pedestrian as Nadal's 7-5, 6-2, 6-0 romp over Spanish compatriot David Ferrer.
Nor were there many thrills in the women's quarters as 2000 champion Mary Pierce easily knocked out top-seeded Lindsay Davenport 6-3, 6-2, again keeping the American from winning the only major to elude her, and 2003 champ Justine Henin-Hardenne stopped Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-2.
A tournament that so far has been devoid of grand theater should have its fill Friday when Federer continues his quest for a career Grand Slam and Nadal celebrates his 19th birthday on center court in his first major semifinal.
Nadal's uncle and mentor, former soccer star Miguel Angel Nadal, took pride in his nickname ''The Beast of Barcelona.'' Young Rafael's first love was soccer, and he inherited his uncle's dynamic style and athletic talent. Under the tutelage of another uncle, Miguel Angel's brother Toni, Nadal transferred those attributes to the tennis court and quickly rose in the rankings after turning pro at 15 a little more than three years ago.
Always bouncing on his toes or running with boundless energy, Nadal has won 22 straight matches, all on clay, and is seeking his sixth title of the year in his first French Open. No less an authority than John McEnroe sees Nadal as the greatest new talent since Boris Becker burst on the scene to win Wimbledon at 17 in 1985.
''To play the semifinal against the No. 1 is unbelievable for me, no?'' said Nadal, who has become a crowd favorite here and everywhere else he's played.
More than just a baseline basher, Nadal has shown creativity with drops, lobs and reflex volleys. His last loss came when Federer rallied from two sets down to beat him in the final on a hardcourt in Key Biscayne, Fla., two months ago.
''I think I've learned very much how to play him,'' Federer said. ''In the beginning I didn't really play very well at all, and he took advantage of that, totally. So I had to fight my way back. I came through, and in the end I felt the fitter player. He looked extremely tired in the fifth, and that kind of surprised me.
''Now we're on clay. Rallies can be even tougher. But I thought (Key Biscayne) was a tough match. I think we can expect the same not that we're going to play five sets again, but tough rallies and hard hitting.''
Federer, 46-2 with six titles this year, plays a more elegant game than Nadal and is showing that he can win as easily on clay as he has on other surfaces. He's won 11 straight matches and 28 straight sets on clay from Hamburg to here.
His long dark hair flopping over the white bandanna wrapped around his forehead, he is by turns dashing and swaggering on the court. More than last year, when he won the Australian, a second Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, he now exudes an air of sovereignty over the men's game.
''I said from the start, I don't think my draw is extremely tough,'' Federer said. ''Because I don't fear no players, but I respect them all. For me, it's important I haven't lost any energy.''
Despite winning in straight sets against the 6-foot-6 Hanescu, Federer showed he could be vulnerable in long rallies. The Romanian, who lacked a big serve and was averse to attacking the net, succeeded most often when he pummeled the ball deep and waited for the more aggressive Federer to make mistakes. Federer had more unforced errors, 36-26, but also had far more winners, 56-17.
Strangely, Federer double-faulted three times in a row when he was serving for the match at 5-1 in the last set.
''It was an awkward moment,'' he said. ''Hasn't happened to me in a long, long time, to serve so bad closing out the match. I was too much in my zone. I just wanted to get it over and done with too quick. I was so happy the way I was playing, and making my first semifinals appearance, I got a little overexcited there.''
Henin-Hardenne also ran her winning streak to 22 matches, all on clay. She improved to 25-1 since returning in March from a seven-month layoff because of a blood virus and knee injury.
''She can produce a huge variety of shots,'' Sharapova said. ''On clay she has the time to do that, and I think that's what makes her so dangerous.''
Henin-Hardenne next meets No. 7-seeded Nadia Petrova of Russia, who reached the semifinals at Roland Garros for the second time by beating 17-year-old Serb Ana Ivanovic 6-2, 6-2.
Pierce, 30, will play another Russian, Elena Likhovtseva, who advanced to a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time in her 12-year career by beating 15-year-old Sesil Karatantcheva 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
For Davenport, the disappointment was in realizing she's not getting any better on clay as the years go on. She turns 29 next week.
''I'm not sad to see the clay court season pass,'' she said with a smile.
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