PARIS (Reuters) - The belated appearance of the blazing sun at what had been a cold and chilly French Open until Friday allowed Rafa Nadal to scorch past Andy Murray and set up a hotly-anticipated final with Novak Djokovic.
Murray’s bid to become the first British man in 77 years to reach the Roland Garros showpiece wilted away in a 6-3 6-2 6-1 pasting by the world number one who now stands just one win away from lifting the Musketeers’ Cup for a ninth time.
To do that he will need to beat his great Serbian rival, who showed Ernests Gulbis that a French Open final is no place for a tennis wild child as he beat the Latvian 6-3 6-3 3-6 6-3 to keep alive his dreams of completing a career grand slam.
While Djokovic spent some of his youth honing his world-beating tennis skills in a drained swimming pool in Belgrade, Gulbis, the son of one of Latvia’s richest men, was busy enjoying the high life.
Djokovic’s two-decade long dedication to his craft was clear for all to see on Friday as despite struggling with the heat late in the third set, he hung in there to finish off the match in four sets and spare his reddening coach Boris Becker from opening up a second bottle of sunblock.
“I’m glad I won in four sets because if it went to a fifth, God knows in which direction the match could go,” the six-times grand slam champion said after beating his childhood friend.
“Suddenly midway through the third set I started to feel physically fatigued a little bit. You could see that both me and him, we struggled on the court.”
Nowhere was that struggle more evident than in the fourth set because after Gulbis had broken back in the third game, Djokovic’s anger boiled over.
He smashed his racket on the red dirt and left it a mangled mess. With the crowd loudly whistling at his petulance, he raised his arms to apologize before giving the racket another bashing by slamming it to the ground behind his bench.
Becker, who spent the changeovers applying more and more sunblock on his arms and face, gestured to his charge from the stands to put an iced towel around his neck.
Djokovic heeded the German’s advice and also donned a baseball cap before he returned to the task in hand and eventually broke for a 5-3 lead before sealing victory.
Gulbis produced some nonchalant dropshots, crafty angles and thunderous backhands but never really threatened to stop Djokovic from setting up a 42nd meeting with Nadal.
Djokovic rattled through the final game to love, sealing the match with a bone-crunching forehand that left Gulbis stirred and shaken following his first foray into a grand slam semi.
“I’m not used to playing these kind of big matches. It’s just normal I felt extra nervous and extra tense ... it was a struggle out there,” said Gulbis, who is said to have traveled to junior matches on his father’s private jet and helicopters.
Murray will also be jetting out of Paris earlier than he would have wanted after being subjected to a 100-minute mauling on Nadal’s personal playground, with the Scot winning just 10 points on the Spaniard’s serve.
There had been much talk of whether Murray’s new-found confidence after winning two grand slam titles since the last time they met at Roland Garros, in the 2011 semi-finals, would allow him to break Nadal’s 5-0 claycourt hold over him.
But the Spaniard took all of 10 minutes to snuff out those ambitions as he romped to a 3-0 lead and from there on there was an air of doom hanging over the British camp.
Nadal simply did not allow the match to become a real contest on the hottest day of the championships, with the mercury touching 28 degrees Celsius, and a rip-roaring smash ended Murray’s misery.
Not much went Murray’s way on Friday but if there was one statistic that summed up his forgettable afternoon - Nadal won six out of six break points while the Wimbledon champion won none from none.
“That’s the toughest match I have played against him,” Murray said after losing for the 15th time in 20 meetings against the champion.
“He served well and I didn’t return well. Simple. He was just battering the next ball into the corner.
“It was a bad, bad day.”
For Nadal, it was a brilliant day.
The top seed’s Roland Garros win-loss record now stands at 65-1 and only the brave would bet against Nadal becoming the first man to win five successive titles at the home of claycourt tennis when he takes on Djokovic on Sunday.
“As a kid it was my dream to play here at Roland Garros, after 10 years of coming here to be playing in my ninth final is unbelievable,” the Spaniard said after chalking up his 34th consecutive victory on the Paris clay.
Editing by Martyn Herman and Alison Williams