PARIS -- We are fortunate to live in an extraordinary age of men's tennis.
There have never been this many good players at the top of the game. And, more than likely, never a top four like this: No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 2 Rafael Nadal, No. 3 Roger Federer and No. 4 Andy Murray.
At last year's U.S. Open, 128 men began the tournament, but five rounds later, those four were the last ones standing. It happened again at the Australian Open in January. Seriously, what are the odds? Can you imagine that happening in, say, golf? Or women's tennis?
Here at Roland Garros, incoming favorite Serena Williams lost in the first round. No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska lost in the third, while No. 1 seed Victoria Azarenka and defending champion Li Na were gone in the fourth. Sara Errani, the No. 21 seed, snuck into the semifinals, something that has been nearly impossible lately for nonmembers of the men's fab four.
The French Open has been an even more difficult proposition for interlopers. Minus Murray, the big three have reached the semifinals here four times in the past six years, a remarkable run of consistency. Late Wednesday, the first three seeds were already safely into the semifinals when No. 6 seed David Ferrer crashed the gate. He took down Murray 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-2, but it was no surprise.
On match point, after more than 3½ hours of play (plus two rain delays), Murray smacked a backhand long and Ferrer stood and smiled, blowing a kiss to his supporters.
"Well, Roland Garros is very special for me," Ferrer said, "because I remember when Sergi Bruguera, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Moya [won here]. This tournament I think is very special for all the Spanish players and also for me."
Earlier, Nadal was a 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-3 winner over fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro. Nadal will play Ferrer on Friday in an all-Spanish semifinal, while Djokovic and Federer meet in the other, reprising last year's dramatic match won by Federer that ended Djokovic's perfect start (41-0) to the 2011 season.
"Yes, Rafa is always difficult to play," Ferrer said. "Even more so on clay. As I said and I will say again: I will try and play a beautiful match, my best tennis. I have great ambitions, and I'm quite certain this is going to be a very physical match."
More than anything, Grand Slam events are about survival. The winner must win seven best-of-five-set skirmishes, a difficult enough task in Melbourne or Wimbledon or New York. But at the French Open, where the red clay absorbs and suffocates pace, the degree of difficulty is squared. Points, games, sets and matches are, inevitably, longer. Deep in the tournament, the body and the mind are sometimes pushed past their limits.
Juan Martin del Potro, his left knee a heap of hash, lost to Federer on Tuesday after winning the first two sets. Murray, who is nursing a bad back, has been living dangerously here, dropping the first set in the second and fourth rounds before rallying to win.
"Every player has niggles," Murray said. "Everybody has problems from time to time. Everyone has to find ways of dealing with them."
But if your vertebrae are not in good working order, the last thing you want to see on a tennis court is Ferrer. Built 30 years ago in Javea, Spain, he is the downsized combustion engine that could, affectionately known as the "Little Beast." Ferrer and Murray are friends and occasionally practice together. Murray beat Ferrer in last year's Australian Open semifinal, but that match was on a hard surface, on which Murray holds a 5-1 head-to-head advantage. When they have met on clay, including today's match, Ferrer has never lost (winning six of seven sets).
"I believe I lost to a better clay-court player than me tonight," Murray said. "I'll need to work on some things in my clay-court game for next year. But, you know, it's not the first time he's won against me on clay. It was going to be a tough match for me, and it proved that way."
Although Ferrer's game is conducive to success on hard courts, he is clearly at home on clay. He is now 26-4 on the dirt in 2012, with two minor titles. He lost to Nadal in the Barcelona final and the semifinals at Rome.
Murray, bad back and all, has bigger, bolder strokes, but on clay -- particularly when it has taken on a day of drizzle -- the relentless Ferrer (6 inches shorter) has more time to track down those amped-up groundstrokes. Murray winced and grabbed his way through the first two sets but managed to draw even in a tiebreaker. But Ferrer, as relentless and determined as any player in the sport, was stronger, physically and mentally.
Supported by fellow Spaniards Carlos Moya (1998 French Open champion) and Albert Costa (2002), who sat in the corner of the large players' section at Court Suzanne Lenglen, Ferrer finds himself in his very first French Open semifinal -- in his 10th appearance.
At 30, he seems to be getting better rather than older.