NEW YORK -- It's as though Rafael Nadal never left.
If anything, he's playing better than ever.
A year after skipping the U.S. Open because of a bad knee, Nadal powered his way back to the semifinals at Flushing Meadows, overwhelming 19th-seeded Tommy Robredo 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 on Wednesday night.
"I think I played my best match at the U.S. Open this year. Great to be able to play your best match in the quarterfinals," Nadal said. "Playing a little better every day is a great feeling."
The second-seeded Nadal improved to 20-0 on hard courts in 2013, part of an overall record of 58-3 with nine titles, including his record eighth championship at the French Open in June. At the next Grand Slam tournament, though, Nadal flopped, exiting in the first round at Wimbledon.
That surprising defeat, against a guy ranked 135th, came on June 24. Feels like eons ago. Nadal hasn't lost a match to anyone since. His 12 major trophies include the 2010 U.S. Open, and he has reached at least the semifinals the past five times he entered the tournament. Nadal did not come to New York in 2012, part of about a seven-month absence due mainly to a left knee problem.
That one took nearly 3½ hours, and was filled with plenty of ebbs and flows, allowing Gasquet to reach his first major semifinal in six years.
Nadal, meanwhile, was never challenged even the slightest bit by Robredo, who was coming off a fourth-round upset of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer. That stunning result scuttled the possibility of a Nadal-Federer showdown, which would have been the rivals' 32nd meeting on tour, but first at the U.S. Open.
Robredo had been 0-10 against Federer before finally beating him Monday. Perhaps that allowed Robredo to enter Wednesday believing he'd have a chance against Nadal, despite an 0-6 mark in their previous matches.
So much for that. This one lasted 1 hour, 40 minutes, and it really was over after 22 minutes. That's how long it took Nadal to dominate the first set, not only winning every game but also 24 of 29 points, including all seven that lasted 10 strokes or more.
"He was up very quick," said Robredo, who is 0-7 in Grand Slam quarterfinals, "and then there was nothing else to do. He was too good."
It took Robredo 39 minutes to finally win a game, the ninth of the match, and some fans stood to applaud, probably hoping for a more competitive evening of tennis. At the changeover moments later, the videoboards in Arthur Ashe Stadium showed Donald Trump in his suite, and the cheers turned to boos.
With loud grunts, Nadal announced his violent, uppercut forehands, and they cut through the 20 mph wind, thick with spin, landing right near lines.
Through two sets, Nadal compiled a 19-2 edge in winners -- the final tally was 28-10 -- and that forehand of his also forced Robredo into plenty of errors. Actually, every aspect of Nadal's game worked.
One backhand lob was curled so well, Robredo tossed his racket up in the air toward the ball, knowing he had no chance of reaching the perfectly placed shot. Nadal never faced a break point, and through five matches so far in New York this year, he has not lost serve once, a run of 67 games.
Nadal played at the French Open and Wimbledon with tape below his left knee, but not at the U.S. Open. He looks healthy as can be, covering the court well and tracking down shot after shot by his opponents.
Now Nadal becomes Gasquet's problem. They've played 10 times on tour, and Nadal has won all 10.
"Last time I beat him, I was 13," Gasquet said, referring to a junior match he looked up on YouTube. "It was a long time ago."
When Nadal was told about that, he smiled broadly.
"Yeah, I think I lost 6-4 in the third," Nadal said. "Yeah, I remember."
The other two men's quarterfinals are Thursday, with No. 1 Novak Djokovic against No. 21 Mikhail Youzhny, and No. 3 Andy Murray against No. 9 Stanislas Wawrinka. Murray beat Djokovic in last year's U.S. Open final.
Azarenka and Pennetta won their quarterfinals Wednesday.
Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion and last year's runner-up to Williams at Flushing Meadows, eliminated 48th-ranked Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 6-3.
The 83rd-ranked Pennetta, who missed the 2012 U.S. Open because of right wrist surgery, reached her first Grand Slam semifinal with a 6-4, 6-1 victory over 10th-seeded Roberta Vinci.
Pennetta spoke Wednesday about sitting at her parents' place in Italy, watching on TV as the U.S. Open went on without her. She was asked whether, at the time, she could have imagined playing at this level 12 months later.
"I hoped so. It's what I hoped for at the start of this year, to be honest. It didn't happen as easily or as quickly as I'd hoped," she said. "But I definitely hoped."
Nadal, too, was far away when the 2012 tournament took place, at home on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
He was concerned about how long it would take his knee to recover, how long it would take for him to play well.
And between then and now, he worked with Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, on improving his hard-court game.
Things seem to be going to plan so far.
During a TV interview during the match, Toni Nadal said it "was necessary" to change the way Rafael plays on hard courts.
"Rafael has problems in his knees, and we talked about playing more aggressive and more near the baseline," Uncle Toni said. "At the moment, (it's) going good."