PARIS - Rafael Nadal's French Open quarterfinal began more than 90 minutes after Novak Djokovic's did yesterday. Which is why, after wrapping up a three-set victory, Djokovic figured his coach could head over and check out some of Nadal's match.

So much for a fresh scouting report ahead of Friday's semifinals.

Turns out Nadal was only moments away from winning 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 against Nicolas Almagro, the most lopsided men's quarterfinal at Roland Garros in the 40-year history of the Open era. Almagro was seeded 19th and has won more matches on clay than anyone else this season.

"I told my coach - I think it was 6-1, 6-1, 5-1 - I told him, 'Look! Go! Go fast! See one game! Try to catch at least a game and see how it goes,' " Djokovic said. " 'Maybe he'll play some bad shots.' "

Not a chance. Hard as it is to believe, Nadal is playing more relentlessly than ever, treating each point - each and every stroke - as though the outcome hangs in the balance.

He's now 26-0 at the French Open for his career, two victories away from becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1978 to '81 to win the clay-court major four consecutive times.

Nadal has dropped a total of 25 games, the fewest ever lost through five full matches by a Grand Slam semifinalist in the Open era.

Djokovic beat 80th-ranked Ernests Gulbis, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 7-5, to become only the fourth man since 1968 to reach five consecutive Grand Slam semifinals. He also earned the right to face Nadal, who is 113-2 on clay since April 2005.

A berth in Sunday's final - and Nadal's No. 2 ranking - will be on the line.

"He's been playing better and better," the No. 3-ranked Djokovic said. "But I don't want to go out there in the semis and just try my best. I don't want to do that. I want to win."

He has won only three of 10 matches with Nadal in their brief but rapidly ascendant careers, including exits from the French Open each of the past 2 years. Both are supremely talented, quite young - Nadal turned 22 yesterday; Djokovic turned 21 last month - and bent on stealing some of the prizes that otherwise would be headed for Roger Federer's trophy case.

"Anything can happen," Nadal said. "I know that if I'm not playing at 100 percent, it's going to be very difficult for me to win this match." *