Nadal beats Soderling, reaches French Open semis

CHRIS LEHOURITES - AP Sports Writer
Rafael Nadal of Spain clenches his fist after reaching matchpoint in the tie break of the third set against Robin Soderling of Sweden in the quarter final match of the French Open tennis tournament in Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Wednesday June 1, 2011. Nadal won in three sets 6-4, 6-1, 7-6. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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Rafael Nadal of Spain clenches his fist after reaching matchpoint in the tie break of the third set against Robin Soderling of Sweden in the quarter final match of the French Open tennis tournament in Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Wednesday June 1, 2011. Nadal won in three sets 6-4, 6-1, 7-6.

PARIS (AP) — Playing like he's still upset about his only loss at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal defeated Robin Soderling 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (3) Wednesday to reach the French Open semifinals for the sixth time.

The five-time champion, who lost to Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 but beat him in last year's final, is 43-1 at the clay-court Grand Slam and two wins away from equaling Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles.

"I am through. I'm in the semifinals, so that's the thing," Nadal said. "I have to be playing better and better every day if I want to have chances to win the final and that's what I'm going to try."

Nadal will face fourth-seeded Andy Murray, who reached the French Open semifinals for the first time in his career. The Australian Open runner-up, who injured his right ankle in the third round, defeated Juan Ignacio Chela 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-2.

"In my opinion, that's not going to affect him and his confidence to be in the semifinal," Nadal said of Murray's injury. "He's playing well. He's (a) big player."

Murray's win ensured that the top four seeded players made the semifinals at a Grand Slam tournament for only the 12th time in the Open era.

Maria Sharapova and Australian Open finalist Li Na reached the women's semifinals. They will face each other Thursday.

While Nadal is in the French Open semifinals for the sixth time in seven years, Sharapova returned to the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in more than three years, beating Andrea Petkovic 6-0, 6-3.

The three-time major champion, who can complete a career Grand Slam with a title at Roland Garros, last reached this stage when she won the 2008 Australian Open.

"I put a lot of work in to be in this stage of the Grand Slams," Sharapova said. "I'm really happy that it's here. I'm going to have a chance to go further."

Nadal was back on Court Philippe Chatrier to face the man who was responsible for his only blemish at Roland Garros. But with the wind gusting — at one point blowing specks of red clay into Nadal's face — the fifth-seeded Swede struggled with his first serve, landing only 57 percent during the match.

"It's always difficult to play when it's windy, but it's the same for both players," Soderling said. "In the beginning it was tough to serve really well. I think first two sets was pretty windy, and then it got a little bit easier, a little bit calmer in the third set."

However, Nadal didn't appear to be bothered by the conditions, although he was broken twice. The top-ranked Spaniard made only 13 unforced errors, while Soderling had 41.

"Probably Robin today had a few more mistakes than usual. That maybe helped me a little bit," Nadal said. Emotionless for nearly the entire match, Nadal was able to handle Soderling's hard forehand and keep his opponent on the move by spraying shots to the corners of the court.

And when he smacked a forehand winner to hold serve to 6-5 in the third set, the crowd roared.

After five titles in Paris, Nadal had plenty of fans in the stands, and even some admirers. Besides the Spanish flags throughout the stadium, one woman held up a sign reading, "Rafa ganador, kiss me por favor" ("Rafa you winner, kiss me please").

The other semifinal Friday will be between defending champion Roger Federer and the seemingly unstoppable Novak Djokovic. The second-seeded Djokovic is 41-0 in 2011 and has won 43 straight matches dating to last year's Davis Cup final triumph for Serbia.

"The best player of the world today against the best player (in) history," Nadal said. "Going to be, in my opinion, fantastic match."

Nadal's semifinal opponent also had an easy time Wednesday.

Murray, who tore a tendon in his right ankle last week but still managed to win a five-setter in the fourth round, trailed Chela 4-1 in the first set. He then won five of six games to force the tiebreaker and broke early in both of the next two sets.

"I feel I can do it," Murray said of his chances at Roland Garros. "It's just making sure that come Friday I play my best tennis. I have to play a very consistent match, and I have to be mentally strong."

Sharapova had little trouble against Petkovic, a German who also lost in the Australian Open quarterfinals. Sharapova won the opening eight games and then overcame two breaks to take the second set.

Sharapova improved her Grand Slam quarterfinal record to 11-3 by beating Petkovic. All three of her losses came at Roland Garros.

Petkovic wasn't able to use her dominant serve against her opponent on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

"Definitely my serve wasn't as good as the previous matches before, so she took full advantage of it," said Petkovic, who beat Sharapova in the fourth round at the Australian Open. "In the second set I came back, and it was just maybe for an instant I could have turned the match. Unfortunately, I couldn't take the chances that I had."

The one time Sharapova previously reached the semifinals in Paris, she lost to eventual runner-up Ana Ivanovic in 2007.

"There's no doubt that I've improved on this surface," Sharapova said. "There's no doubt that I felt, as the years went on, that I felt better and better."

Besides the Australian Open title, the seventh-seeded Russian also won Wimbledon in 2004 and the U.S. Open in 2006. With a title at Roland Garros, Sharapova can become the 10th woman to complete a career Grand Slam.

Li, who defeated fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-2, is more of a surprise semifinalist.

Although she became the first Chinese player to reach a major final when she lost to Kim Clijsters at this year's Australian Open, the sixth-seeded Li seemed stunned.

"After I win the match I was feeling, 'Wow! I can play semi in Roland Garros,'" Li said. "I never think about that before. So many people think I'm not so good in clay court, but I think now they should change a little bit."