PARIS — At last, Rafael Nadal sounded satisfied.
Then again, what could he possibly have complained about Wednesday? The five-time French Open champion reached the semifinals and improved his career record at Roland Garros to 43-1 with a clean-as-can-be 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (3) victory over the only man he’s ever lost to there, two-time runner-up Robin Soderling.
“Today, I played better. Much better, in my opinion,” Nadal said. “It was nothing secret, nothing magic. … I found a lot of solutions.”
After Nadal’s previous match, he chided himself for not hitting the ball with conviction and fretted that his level of tennis wasn’t good enough to win the tournament a sixth time, which would tie Bjorn Borg’s record for the most by a man in history.
Against Soderling, Nadal was at his “King of Clay” best.
He scrambled along the baseline to dig out and get back shots that would be winners against most anyone else. He went from defense to offense in a blink, winning 14 of the first 19 points that lasted at least 10 strokes, according to the AP’s tally. He made a hard-to-believe 13 unforced errors total; Soderling made 41. Nadal broke in each of the first two games the 6-foot-4 Soderling served, six times in all.
“He played really good. It’s the first match this tournament that he played well all the time,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach. “Well, only in the third set was I a little worried. But it was very good for us today.”
On Friday, the top-seeded Nadal will take on No. 4 Andy Murray, who became only the third British man in the last 70 years to reach the French Open semifinals by beating unseeded Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-2. Murray’s been playing with a torn tendon in his right ankle since twisting it in the third round, and he trailed Chela 4-1, then 5-3, before saving two set points and turning the match around.
“Just a really scrappy match,” said Murray, who is 0-3 in Grand Slam finals. “I didn’t start particularly well and then got a little bit better, started moving a bit better, towards the end of the first set.”
The other men’s semifinal is No. 2 Novak Djokovic, who is 41-0 in 2011 and has won 43 consecutive matches overall, against No. 3 Roger Federer, owner of a record 16 Grand Slam titles.
It’s the 12th time in the history of the Open era, which began in 1968, that the top four seeded men reached the semifinals at a Grand Slam tournament — and first since the 2006 French Open.
In contrast, none of the top four seeded players will participate in the women’s semifinals Thursday, when No. 5 Francesca Schiavone of Italy, the defending champion, faces No. 11 Marion Bartoli of France, and No. 6 Li Na of China meets No. 7 Maria Sharapova of Russia.
For Sharapova, who had right shoulder surgery in October 2008, it’s her first major semifinal in more than three years, and she is bidding to complete a career Grand Slam. She won Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006, and the Australian Open in 2008, but never has been to a final in Paris.
“I put a lot of work in to be in this stage of the Grand Slams,” Sharapova said after beating No. 15 Andrea Petkovic of Germany 6-0, 6-3 Wednesday with her fiance, New Jersey Nets guard Sasha Vujacic, in the stands. “I’m really happy that it’s here.”
Li, who became the first Chinese player to reach any major final at the Australian Open in January, was a 7-5, 6-2 winner over No. 4 Victoria Azarenka.
“So many people think I’m not so good (on a) clay court,” Li said, “but I think now they should change a little bit.”
No one ever has doubted Nadal’s proficiency on the slow, red surface.
Since 2005, the year he won his first French Open title in his tournament debut, Nadal is 198-8 on clay, including an 81-match unbeaten streak that ended in 2007.
The only blemish on his Roland Garros record remains a fourth-round loss in 2009 to Soderling. But Nadal beat the Swede in last year’s final in straight sets and was just as dominant Wednesday.
When Nadal closed a 14-stroke exchange with a run-around forehand winner that caught a line to earn a break point at 1-all in the second set, Soderling shook his head. The next point went 11 strokes as Nadal kept getting the ball back until Soderling sent a forehand wide then raised both arms as if to say, “What do I need to do to win one of these?”
Nadal broke again to get to 4-1, and while the match was all of 74 minutes old, it also was all but over.
“I was able to move very well; even better today than in any other matches in this tournament,” Nadal said. “I had the feeling I was really covering the court much better and I was able to run a lot better.”
If the Spaniard’s bad-mouthing of his own performances earlier in the tournament was meant to fool opponents, Soderling wasn’t listening.
“Against the world No. 1, you never expect anyone to play bad,” Soderling said. “I mean, it would be pretty stupid.”
Murray, for his part, also figures he knows what sort of showing he’ll get from Nadal, who leads their career series 10-4.
“Even in practice, he plays well against me,” Murray said, “so I don’t expect him to play badly on Friday.”