Madrid: Gael Monfils managed the rare feat of getting a Spanish crowd on his side in a match against Rafa Nadal Friday but was undone by another claycourt masterclass as the four-times French Open champion won 6-1 6-3.
In unseasonably chilly conditions in the drafty Magic Box arena, Roger Federer joined Nadal in the last four and warmed the shivering fans with a stirring fightback from a set down to oust Ernests Gulbis 3-6 6-1 6-4.
It was sweet revenge for the world number one after he lost to the shaggy-haired Latvian at last month’s Rome Masters.
Briton Andy Murray, who turns 23 Saturday, missed out on a last-four clash with Federer after he came out second best in a late night slugfest with the tenacious David Ferrer and lost 7-5 6-3.
Ferrer was the third Spaniard into the semis after unseeded Nicolas Almagro thumped Austrian Juergen Melzer 6-3 6-1.
Nadal stormed into a one-set lead against the showy but erratic Monfils before the French 12th seed’s antics at 2-2 in the second set briefly won over the normally partisan locals.
His comical protests when a thumping winner was wrongly called out prompted laughter and cheers and the 23-year-old further endeared himself to the fans when he had to wave his arms to attract the attention of a distracted ball girl.
World number three Nadal, bidding for a third consecutive Masters title of the year on his favoured surface after triumphs in Monte Carlo and Rome, was unfazed and quickly claimed two more breaks of serve to add to a pair in the first set.
A double fault from Monfils on the first match point then handed the Spaniard a place in Saturday’s semi-finals. Both players were given warm ovations as they left the stadium.
“I enjoy connecting with the crowd,” said Monfils, playing his first clay event of the year after a hand injury.
“I played my game as well as I could but I was up against the best clay player on the planet and I lost, so what can you do?” he told reporters with a Gallic shrug.
Nadal did not seem to mind that Monfils had temporarily wormed his way into the affections of the home fans.
“He’s a very good player and he’s great for the show and the spectators appreciate that,” said Nadal.
“The fans here have always been fantastic with me but I like it they support the other players sometimes.”
If Nadal reaches Sunday’s final he will reclaim the number two ranking from Serb Novak Djokovic, who pulled out of Madrid due to illness, but he will first have to get past Almagro.
The 24-year-old was in scintillating form against Melzer to reach his first Masters Series semi-final.
“If I have the good fortune to win (against Nadal) I’ll jump in the lake to celebrate,” said Almagro.
Nadal opted out of last month’s Barcelona Open to make sure he did not suffer a repeat of the knee injuries that dogged him in 2009.
The decision looks to have left him in good shape to challenge for a second Madrid Masters title after he won the event in 2005 when it was played on an indoor hard court.
Nadal will be a strong favourite to reclaim the Roland Garros title from Federer when the clay grand slam gets under way on May 23.
Federer’s battling performance was watched by Real Madrid soccer club’s president Florentino Perez, coach Manuel Pellegrini and several of his squad including Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
The Swiss 16-times grand slam winner said he was feeling in fine fettle after his three matches this week:
“This tournament has been great for me so far. In all the matches I’ve hit the ball cleanly, serving well. There are no complaints from my side. Even the set I lost today was good.”