Coming into the match the countrymen had faced off 27 times with Nadal winning an astonishing 21 of those meetings. One of those clashes came in the French Open final last year, when the "King of Clay" was pretty much on cruise control en route to a straight-sets triumph and his eighth title at Roland Garros.
Ferrer was intent on making sure to put up a much better fight this time around. He had reason for that increased level of confidence after beating Nadal on clay in the Monte Carlo Masters during the buildup to the season's second major.
The ATP Tour's official site also passed along comments from the underdog, who said nerves played a critical role in that marquee loss one year ago:
I was very nervous [last year in the final]. I was jittery. It was a little bit too much for me. But now I'm calmer, I've had time to adapt. I think that I will be calmer, more serene, but I don't know exactly what will be my state of mind when I play against Rafa. I won't think about the final that took place last year.
Sure enough, Ferrer certainly seemed more comfortable in the opening set. Not only was he able to make consistent inroads on Nadal's serve, but he was also winning far more points from a neutral position. That's key in order to seriously challenge an elite defender like the 28-year-old lefty.
Ferrer ended up converting two of six break chances in the first set while winning 45 percent of the points on Nadal's serve. He also had seven more winners and equally as many fewer errors. Quite simply, he was the better player en route to grabbing early control of the match.
Longtime top-10 player Andy Roddick was complimentary of Ferrer's effort:
Ferrer and Nadal are physical specimens...Unreal to watch. Nobody on tennis earth gets more out of every ounce of talent than David Ferrer— andyroddick (@andyroddick) June 4, 2014
Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times noted the belief factor was there:
Unlike last year's underwhelming final, David Ferrer looks like he believes he can beat Rafael Nadal today. He wins the first set 6-4. #RG14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 4, 2014
Winning a set against Nadal at Roland Garros is only the start, though. His past success at the event is matched only by Max Decugis a century ago during the amateur era, and there have been few fighters like him in the history of the sport.
So it came as little surprise that Nadal battled back in the second set. He did a much better job of defending his second serve and converted his only break-point opportunity. On the flip side, Ferrer couldn't connect on any of his three break chances to get back level.
Though the overall play was still a pretty event, Nadal played the big points better as he so often has in the past when the two have met. The top seed finished it off at 6-4 to send it to a third set all square.
ESPN Tennis noted that's when the time and the remaining daylight in Paris started to become part of the discussion:
Nadal, surely not wanting to resume the match on Thursday if possible, came out flying in the third set. He started playing some of his best tennis of the tournament so far, and Ferrer couldn't match his intensity in the early going.
The world No. 1 earned two early breaks and raced out to a 4-0 lead in the third. At that point, it became more of a survival exercise for Ferrer. He wanted to prevent either losing the match before the day's play was called or falling too far behind to make a comeback on Thursday.
Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated noted the match's sudden change of complexion:
Ferrer has issued a unilateral ceasefire…Nadal, suddenly, rolling— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) June 4, 2014
Nadal proceeded to earn another break and closed out a third-set bagel on serve. Given how close the first two sets were, it was an awe-inspiring effort to swiftly take total control.
Jose Morgado of Portugal's Jornal Record summed up the set and noted the usually slow-paced Nadal needed to show some urgency with the sun setting:
Horror set from Ferrer. Nadal has 40 minutes to win this today. Maybe he will take less time between points now lol— José Morgado (@josemorgado) June 4, 2014
The trend continued as Nadal broke Ferrer's serve in the opening game of the fourth set. Ferrer then had three break opportunities to immediately get back level and squandered them all. The momentum of the match turned against him and he couldn't stop the slide.
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Nadal went on to close out the match with a 6-1 fourth set. He won 12 of the 13 games over the final two sets after the players had split the first 20 games evenly. That next gear is the difference between a 13-time major champion and a player who has always come up a bit short on the biggest stages.
Looking ahead at the semifinals, Nadal will play Andy Murray, who retired Gael Monfils 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 1-6, 6-0. Nadal holds a 14-5 mark against Murray, but they had a close three-set encounter in the Rome Masters a couple weeks ago.
After surviving the early scare from Ferrer, Nadal remains the player to beat. He's likely on a championship collision course with Novak Djokovic, who will face Ernests Gulbis in the other semifinal. Despite all the craziness throughout the draw, it would still be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 final.