PARIS -- Now that the tournament has reached its business stage, messages are being sent, in the mirror, and across the net, as the hardware nears. Battered, bruised and resilient, Novak Djokovic » reached the semifinals on Tuesday. He'll face Roger Federer » , who has undergone his own trials. While both have been brought to the brink of elimination, Rafael Nadal » faced Nicolas Almagro » unscathed and as dangerous as ever Wednesday.
Although Almagro took Nadal to a tiebreak in the first set, he failed to break Nadal once in their quarterfinal. Facing balls literally twisting away from him, Almagro fell victim to the whirlwind that is Nadal 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-3. Nadal enters the semis having been broken once and never dropping a set. He's 50-1 in his career at Roland Garros.
Nadal remains untested on Paris' red clay and seeing a match like his fourth round against Juan Monaco » on Monday, makes you wonder if Nadal will be. For the first seven minutes of that match, Nadal was in the same kind of fight Monaco has given the rest of his opponents this year. Monaco traded forehand after forehand with Nadal. The sound of the ball off Monaco's racket suggested that the patrons at Court Suzanne Lenglen take notice, that they might be treated to something special. Perhaps he might thwart Nadal's quest to untie himself from Bjorn Borg's record and win a seventh title here.
Monaco was no Cinderella. He made a run to the semifinals in Miami, beating Gael Monfils », Andy Roddick », and Mardy Fish » before losing to Novak Djokovic. He beat John Isner » in the final at the U.S. Claycourt Championships and was ranked 15th coming into the French Open after starting the year 26th.
Monaco won the third game of the first set to take a 2-1 lead, and that was his last taste. Nadal held serve and did not lose another game for the rest of the afternoon: a run of 17 straight games. The entire match took one hour, 47 minutes. Nadal was kind to his friend, saying Monaco was "unlucky" because his inspired play was not rewarded in the first set. But it seems no one's efforts against Nadal are rewarded. Is Djokovic aware of how Nadal is shredding his fellow clay-court experts?
Maybe neither of the top two seeds are paying attention to the beautiful cosmetics of it all, the symmetry of Nadal's dominance and Djokovic's heart. Djokovic is playing with a desperate exhaustion of a person inches from completing a great quest: first, four consecutive majors and then possibly, the Grand Slam, which hasn't been achieved in 43 years.
In the quarterfinal round, Djokovic's mission nearly fell victim to home-crowd favored Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga », who raised the level of his serve to surge ahead. The previous match, Djokovic struggled to escape Andreas Seppi » in five sets, and now Djokovic was in trouble again. With a two sets to one lead, Tsonga forced a tiebreak; fortunately for Djokovic, Tsonga's form slipped. He lost the tiebreak and only won one game again in the match. Once again, Djokovic rewrote his own history.
Maybe such thoughts and narratives belong to the watchers because the doers are too busy doing. Maybe Djokovic and Nadal have tunneled so deeply into their private space they are unaware that they are creating a mounting storyline even before they potentially meet in the final. Provided Djokovic can get past Federer, after losing to the 16-time major champion here last year. But this is a different time.
Djokovic reminded the field that he is still the man to beat, that he has won 26 straight Grand Slam matches, that no one has beaten him in a five-set match in a year. Maybe Nadal -- who has beaten Almagro all eight times they've met, six of which were played on clay -- wasn't worried or surprised that Djokovic stood tall against four match points, but he had to be aware. These two are always aware of the other, and though a meeting Sunday does not yet feel inevitable, it is getting closer. The good stuff has arrived.