PARIS — On his way to the locker room after his 20th consecutive victory on clay, Rafael Nadal was pressed in an on-court interview to declare himself the man to beat at this year's upset-filled French Open.
"Right now," Nadal insisted, "there is no one favorite."
Heading into Friday's semifinals, the second-seeded Nadal stands out: He is the only remaining player to have won a title at any of tennis' Grand Slam tournaments. He owns six major championships in all, including four in a row at Roland Garros from 2005 to 2008.
Two of the other men, No. 15 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic and No. 22 Jurgen Melzer of Austria, are first-time Grand Slam semifinalists. As Berdych put it after his quarterfinal victory: "It's nice to be here."
No. 5 Robin Soderling of Sweden, meanwhile, will be playing in only his second major semifinal.
Then again, let's not forget that Soderling is the only man to ever have beaten Nadal in the French Open: The Spaniard was 31-0 for his career at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament before losing to Soderling in the fourth round last year. Soderling went on to lose to Roger Federer in the final.
Showing that his 2009 run in Paris was no fluke, Soderling pulled off another surprise by beating the top-seeded Federer in the quarterfinals Tuesday.
All of which is why people are starting to look ahead, thinking about the intriguing possibility of seeing a Nadal vs. Soderling rematch in Sunday's final.
Not so fast, warns Nadal, who can overtake Federer for the No. 1 ranking by winning the title. First things first: Nadal plays Melzer in one semifinal, while Soderling faces Berdych in the other.
"I never think about revenge," said Nadal, who turned 24 on Thursday. "And I am in (the) semifinals against Melzer. ... So I am focused on that match right now, no?"
Not that Nadal needs help on his favorite surface, mind you, but the guy is winding his way through an easier path than might have been expected.
In the quarterfinals, he played No. 19 Nicolas Almagro, instead of No. 7 Fernando Verdasco. Now he takes on Melzer — a 29-year-old player never before past the third round at any Grand Slam tournament in 31 previous tries, and someone who's never beaten Nadal — instead of No. 3 Novak Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open champion who's defeated the Spaniard seven times.
Still, regardless of the opponent, Nadal is back to his usual dominance on clay, whipping uppercut forehands and scrambling to cover every inch of the court the way no other player does.
By going 20-0 on the surface this season, he's improved to a remarkable 201-16 for his career on clay, a .926 winning percentage that is the best in the Open era, which began in 1968. And he is, don't forget, 36-1 at the French Open.
Nadal is trying to become the second man with five French Open titles; Bjorn Borg holds the record of six, winning his in 1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981.
As always, the Spaniard is talking down his chances, while making every upcoming foe sound as if he's the greatest player in history.
Here's what Nadal had to say about Melzer: "I've seen that my next opponent is very solid. I've seen him play, and, well, some of you might think it's a surprise (Melzer is in the semifinals). But trust me, if he made it to the semifinal, it's because he played extremely well ... and he is a very dangerous player."
For Melzer's part, he was so thrilled about beating Djokovic in five sets that he wanted to enjoy it a bit before contemplating the task that lies ahead.
Melzer never had won a match after losing the first two sets before coming all the way back to win his first Grand Slam quarterfinal 3-6, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-4.
"You want to have a straight mindset when you think about Nadal," Melzer said shortly after upsetting Djokovic. "At the moment, that wouldn't be possible."