Murray, Rafa beat foes, darkness

PARIS -- There was a little skip and a hop at the end, and a muted fist pump. But make no mistake, Rafael Nadal was not happy.

He took off his sodden headband and politely shook David Ferrer's hand. As Nadal walked slowly back onto Court Suzanne Lenglen, he exhaled deeply, then forced a smile. It was more of a grimace, really.

It is impossible to overstate Nadal's history of dominance at Roland Garros.

Not only had he won 63 of 64 matches on the venerable grounds here beside the sprawling gardens of the Bois de Boulogne, but the muscular Spaniard had produced the two longest match win streaks of all time at the French Open, 32 and 31.

In the other quarterfinal contested Wednesday, No. 7 seed Andy Murray defeated No. 23 Gael Monfils of France 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 1-6, 6-0. The wildly manic match ended in near darkness. When the fourth set ended, it didn't seem possible they could get through a fifth.

"Conditions changed quite a lot during it," Murray said. "It was extremely windy in the beginning, and then it was pretty calm at the end and very slow. It was obviously very cold at the end of the match. Yeah, I mean, he really raised his game in the third set. I thought I played a pretty good third set. Fourth set wasn't my best, but, yeah, it was a fun match.

"I'm glad I got this one done," he added. "Happy to have a day off. Need to get some proper rest and recovery and I'll be ready to go."

But for Monfils, this one ended in cruel fashion.

"No, it's just lots of frustration," Monfils said. "Each match you play is a good experience, whether you win or you lose. Tonight I'm a bit upset because I had to adapt on two occasions. I couldn't do it. In the fifth set and in the second set there was a lot of wind, but I didn't manage to adapt. Then in the fifth I rushed and I couldn't adapt, so it's a lot of frustration."

As for Nadal, we saw yet another reason why he has been so successful here.

When Ferrer won the first set of their quarterfinal match, a nervous, disquieting murmur ran through the crowd at Court Suzanne Lenglen. It was only the seventh time in 65 matches that this had happened to Rafa -- and one of those times, in the 2009 fourth round, Robin Soderling did the unthinkable. He beat the King of Clay in the world's largest clay-court stadium.

Naturally, Rafa rallied on Wednesday -- and furiously. Affirming his No. 1 seed, Nadal won 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1. Go ahead, do the math. Rafa won 18 of the 23 games in the last three sets.

"Well, I think at the beginning David was playing with a higher intensity than me," Nadal said. "Is true that I started first two points playing well, but then I make a lot of mistakes with my backhand. Amazing with how much mistakes I had with my backhand today.

"Difficult to understand, because last two days I was practicing the best that I practiced since a long time ago in terms of feeling with my forehand, with my backhand. I went on court relaxed. Not relaxed thinking that I'm going to win, but relaxed thinking I'm going to play well. I really felt the ball better than probably during the whole year."

The Nadal-Ferrer encounter was a rematch of the 2013 French Open final between two players who share a friendship and a nationality. Previously, Nadal had won 17 of 19 their matches on clay, but it is worth noting that those two wins for Ferrer were the very first meeting (10 years ago in Stuttgart) and the last, only six weeks ago in Monte Carlo.

Another ominous sign that something strange was afoot? Rafa had never dropped a set to Ferrer in three previous meetings at Roland Garros. The best the 32-year-old could do was a total of eight games in last year's final, and he surpassed that number midway through the second set.

When Nadal eventually took that frame, with an emphatic backhand, cross-court winner, it was all even. But with the sun sinking quickly below the rim of the stadium, even if he won the next two sets, would there be enough light to complete the match?

Only two years ago, Nadal was leading Novak Djokovic in a rain-soaked final when play was suspended with Rafa trailing 2-1 in the fourth set. It was the first time the men's final didn't conclude on a Sunday since 1973. A day later, Rafa closed out the match, 7-5.

Fair to say that Rafa felt a sense of urgency down the stretch; it was 6-0 and it was over in a scant 26 minutes. And then he broke Ferrer in the first game of the fourth, creating a lead he would not relinquish. In the end, Nadal beat sunset by nearly a half-hour.

Another concern for Rafanatics: his ailing back, which has drastically affected his serving speed. It dropped 11 miles per hour in his second-round match, but has been steadily improving ever since.

Both Nadal and Murray will sleep well knowing they have Thursday off to contemplate their looming semifinal match.

When Murray sent an early ball into the net during prematch warm-ups, there were a few isolated shrieks of glee, and it looked like the crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier was intent on carrying Le Monf. But the dialed-in Scot never let it come to that -- until the third set.

Murray won the first two sets 6-4, 6-1, but when Monfils broke through in the third, 6-4, the stadium erupted and you could feel the building actually vibrate. Monfils has breathtaking athletic skills -- in an earlier match, he flung himself at a ball and soared past horizontal, his legs higher than his head -- but he has always played maddeningly far behind the baseline and played a defensive game. Murray exploited this, commanding the court with superior angles.

Monfils didn't have a good explanation for his mysterious fifth-set collapse.

"I think I played a good first game," he said. "I think it was 15-30. Then everything happened very fast. I missed a few shots, and I don't know. I don't really know what happened. It was very fast. You know, very fast. I start to miss a lot of balls. I felt not bad, so it was a very strange feeling. Very strange."

Murray, who underwent season-ending back surgery after the US Open, is just starting to regain the form that earned him two Grand Slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal. But in order to get to the final here, a certain world No. 1 awaits. So...

"We'll find out on Friday," Murray said. "I don't know. I mean, it's a tough question to answer, but I have done decent here so far. I have played some long matches, you know, and come through them. But the most important thing now is just to recover and be as fresh as I can for Friday. Like I said the other day, give 100 percent of what I got on that day and see how it goes."