Monaco: A ninth Monte Carlo Masters title is getting closer for Rafael Nadal with most of his rivals out of the way — including Roger Federer, who again misses out on one of the few trophies not already in his glittering collection.
But Federer — a four-time runner-up on the French Riviera — was not too disappointed, considering that his priority was to come back safely after more than two months out following knee surgery.
Nadal beat Stan Wawrinka 6-1, 6-4 on Friday to set up a third semifinal here against Andy Murray. Federer lost 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, despite being two points from victory when 5-4 up in the decider with Tsonga 15-30 down on his serve.
This was Federer's first tournament play since arthroscopic surgery on his left knee for torn cartilage on Feb. 3, and defeat was softened by relief at avoiding any relapse.
"It was good to play back-to-back, yesterday and today, good to play 2 hours 10 (minutes) today," Federer said. "It was nice to play an intense match. I'm happy how the body reacted."
With top-ranked Novak Djokovic and Wawrinka — the French Open champion — also out, Federer himself picked Nadal when asked about the favorite.
"He is still a major player on clay," Federer said of Nadal, whose last title here came in 2012.
The statistics agree with Federer.
Nadal leads Murray 16-6 in career meetings and 6-1 on clay. For the other two semifinalists, Nadal is 11-2 up on Gael Monfils — 4-0 on clay — and 8-4 on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, having beaten him here in the semifinals three years ago. Nadal went on to lose the 2013 final to Djokovic, who was stunned in the second round this year by Czech Jiri Vesely, an unheralded Czech player ranked 55th.
In a one-sided contest between former champions, Nadal broke Wawrinka four times, and made the semifinals for the 11th time.
"When I had the opportunity, I was trying to control the point," Nadal said.
Murray took out Milos Raonic 6-2, 6-0 for the second time this year.
"If I play like I did today, I'll have a chance," said Murray, who lost to Nadal in the semifinals in 2009 and 2011 when Nadal was winning eight consecutive Monte Carlo titles.
Murray beat Nadal in the Madrid Masters final last year, when he won his first two career titles on clay.
The Briton thinks patience will be the key factor against the nine-time French Open champion.
"He can make you go for winners from uncomfortable positions," said Murray, who did not face a break point against the big-serving Raonic. "You have to not allow that to happen."
Nadal improved to 15-3 in career matches against Wawrinka, who began as a winner in three of their last five contests.
Having saved 15 of 17 break points in the third round against Dominic Thiem, Nadal conceded only one chance this time.
Wawrinka drew jeers from the crowd in the fifth game of the first set when he broke his racket, angrily bending it around his thigh.
The Swiss player was also frustrated by the noise level coming from people enjoying their lunch in the restaurant perched above center court.
"I don't believe they saw a lot of the match ... I think they also drank a lot of alcohol," Wawrinka said. "When you don't play well and you're not in your match, it can bother you."
Following his countryman Wawrinka onto center court, Federer looked like beating the eighth-seeded Tsonga for the 12th time in 17 matches.
But after holding serve in a tense 10th game of the deciding set, the eighth-seeded Tsonga hit two powerful winners off his backhand and forehand to break Federer for the fifth time.
Serving for the match, Tsonga gave Federer another opening when he trailed 30-0, and again at 30-30 when Federer missed an easy volley at the net and swiped the ball into the crowd in frustration.
Federer rushed a forehand on the first match point, giving Tsonga his sixth career win against Federer and his second in their four contests on clay.
But for Federer, who has 17 majors among 88 career titles, this defeat took a back seat to his health.
"In this tournament, (it) really doesn't matter at all if I missed those chances," said Federer, who beat Tsonga in the 2014 quarterfinals.
The 13th-seeded Monfils was last on center court and beat Spaniard Marcel Granollers 6-2, 6-4.