| Xavier Malisse in action in Chennai on Friday. The Belgian beat Fabrice Santoro 6-4, 4-6, 6-0. (AFP)
Chennai: Rafael Nadal is hungry — not only for wins, but for an ATP title which has eluded him since June when the Spaniard defended his French Open crown. Poor Davide Sanguinetti felt the fury at the Nungambakkam Stadium on Friday evening as the world No. 2 bulldozed his way into the Chennai Open semi-finals. It took the top seed less than an hour to win 6-3, 6-2 and set up a clash with Xavier Malisse.
The third-seeded Belgian earlier waged a battle with himself, rather than against veteran Frenchman Fabrice Santoro. The enigmatic Malisse, an elegant strokemaker at the best of times, suffered a couple of inexplicable lapses in concentration to gift the second set before winning 6-4, 4-6, 6-0.
Two-time champion Carlos Moya made the day for the big crowd with a vintage performance that subdued the fighting Ivo Karlovic. The No. 5 seed, aiming for a fourth straight final appearance here, struck three sensational winners in the tie-break to beat the six-foot-10 Croat 6-4, 7-6 (8-6). Moya's semifinal opponent will be unseeded Austrian Stefan Koubek, who annihilated fourth seed Julien Benneteau 6-1, 6-2.
Back to the exploits of Nadal. The way he strode the court, pounding winners at will, one could only sympathise with Sanguinetti. At 34 years and four months the oldest player in the draw, it wasn’t because of age that he lost.
Nadal made the ball talk with his magical forehand. Using the racket as an extension of his elastic left arm, he whipped crosscourt winners and looping down-the-line drives to leave Sanguinetti non-plussed.
Not satisfied with the ‘workout’ Sanguinetti gave him, Nadal headed straight for the practice court. “The match wasn’t very long, so I wanted to hit the ball a bit more. Also, I was feeling very good towards the end of the match, I wanted that feeling to continue some more time.”
If there was one area of concern for Nadal, it was the failure to convert break-points. Of the 10 chances he got to capture the Italian’s serve, he took just three. It didn’t matter on Friday, but it could another day against a stronger opponent.
The sixth-seeded Santoro had lost all three previous clashes with Malisse. This day seemed to be no different. Malisse’s forehand was on target and a low-backlift flicked backhand fetched him a number of points as well.
Malisse was sharp at the net, too, putting away two backhand volleys at crunch times to break Santoro in games 1 and 5. The 2002 Wimbledon semi-finalist was in total command.
Then came the first Malisse lapse. Three forehand errors and a double-fault from the Belgian meant Santoro had got a break back. But that was as far as the 34-year-old Frenchman could go, at least in the opening set.
Malisse broke serve again in the opening game. It was all one-way traffic as Santoro struggled to keep pace with Malisse. Serving at 4-3, Malisse turned benevolent (again) and played a poor game. Santoro suddenly saw a window of opportunity. He held serve to lead for the first time in the match and went on to play his best game straight after that.
In the decider, the aggressive Malisse was a class apart. He ran his ageing opponent ragged and closed out points with a combination of drop-shots, stop-volleys and passing shots.
Santoro’s consolation was a special presentation the organisers made after the match on centre court. He was handed over a plaque to mark his 19th year on the Tour — more than any of his contemporaries.