Neither wind nor Roger Federer could beat the King of Clay

PARIS -- Same superlatives, different day.

Roger Federer returned to the French Open after a three-year absence with every intention of putting himself on a collision course with Rafael Nadal, the most inexorable force ever on Roland Garros' red clay courts.

He got double the opposition he'd wished for in Friday's semifinal: Nadal plus a capricious, swirling wind. Frequent gusts torqued and altered the trajectory of shots and sent red clay dust billowing across the Philippe-Chatrier main show court, occasionally making the two men appear as if they were playing through a road rally in the desert.

It was a bad hair afternoon, with conditions that would prompt recreational players to repair to a sports bar. There were times when both No. 3 Federer and No. 2 Nadal struggled like pilots trying to level their wings for landing in a sudden squall. But the 33-year-old Nadal, as usual, found solutions and touched down safely on the court he has ruled almost continuously since he was a teenager. He relatively cruised to a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory and will face the winner of the rain-delayed semifinal between Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic on Sunday.

"There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him," Federer said with admiring resignation in his postmatch news conference. "I don't even know who I need to go search for to go practice with somebody who plays like him." He smiled. "I was thinking that during the match. It's just amazing how he plays from deep and then is able to bounce back and forth from the baseline. It's just quite interesting.

"I didn't play a poor two first sets, in my opinion. I thought Rafa really had to come up with the goods to make the difference, and the difference was a passing shot here, a pickup there, and then he was doing great, you know."

Nadal, as usual, returned strongly. "Well, I don't find any sparring partners, either, playing like Federer," he said. "There are no two people like Federer on this planet. Luckily, actually.

"I always expect the best from him and I prepare myself accordingly to respond in the best way I can to his tennis. Because everything he's done over the years, all the matches we played, all this experience makes it so that we can rightfully think he will be able to give his best tennis. And sometimes he succeeds and other times not."

Even with the unusually modest expectations that accompanied him Friday, the Swiss megastar is not a just-happy-to-be-there kind of guy. That much became crystal clear when he whacked a ball skyward in frustration early in the third set, which was followed by an official warning from the chair umpire.

The match had all but slipped through Federer's strings at that point, lost on a couple of key service games in the second set -- one when he was serving up 2-0 but squandered his advantage, and again up 40-0 at 4-all. Nadal proceeded to reel off nine straight points, breaking Federer on a morale-crushing volley winner and then holding at love to seal the set.

On the changeover, Federer's gaze focused on an unseen spot in the distance. This French Open has been a love-fest for him over the past 12 days, but even at 37, he wants more than just a sentimental welcome, or even the hearty applause and kind words Nadal bestowed on him afterwards.

"Crowd support couldn't have been better. Maybe one of the best ever in my entire 20-year career," Federer said. "I surprised myself, maybe, how deep I got in this tournament and how well I actually was able to play throughout. And next year, just like with any other tournament, I don't know. We'll see what happens."

Nadal, who has dropped just one set at this tournament and will play for a record 12th title here, has reverted to invincibility after what now seems like a long-ago, less-than-perfect lead-up on clay.

In response to a reporter's question at the Italian Open -- which Nadal won in a promising sign just ahead of Roland Garros -- Nadal gave a rapidfire tour of his psyche that went viral on social media: "What happened in Monte-Carlo happened. What happened in Barcelona happened. What happened in Madrid happened. Here we are. We are in Rome. That's a different event."

We are now in Paris, where he's in a different category.