“I’m playing the biggest tournament play the year – that’s what drives me,” said Nadal
After much talk, by Rafael Nadal and others, on the many reasons why this pandemic-delayed French Open could be more difficult for him – cooler fall weather; slightly heavier tennis balls; lack of preparation for the match – the clay king is back where he usually is: in the final.
And this time, in addition to closing an unfathomable thirteenth championship at Roland Garros, Nadal has the chance to equal Roger Federer for the men’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles.
Nadal did his last opponent what he did to so many in the clay-court tournament that he dominated for 1.5 decades, Nadal defeated 12th-seeded Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0) Friday in a semifinal full of grueling grinding points.
As has been the case for years, Nadal did not want to get into the idea of shooting with Federer as well, saying it’s okay for others to talk about these matters, but that he was focused on the task at hand.
“I’m playing the biggest tournament of the year — that’s what motivates me,” Nadal insisted.
On Sunday, Nadal’s number 2 will face the number 1 Novak Djokovic or No.5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, who met in the second semifinal. The women’s final is on Saturday, with Sofia Kenin, a 21-year-old American, taking on 19-year-old Iga Swiatek from Poland.
Nadal improved to 99-2 at Roland Garros, including a 25-0 combined in the semifinals and finals, as he seeks a fourth consecutive title in Paris. This would build on the 34-year-old Spaniard’s previous series of four in a row from 2005-08 and five from 2010-14, to accompany four trophies in the United States.
He’s won all 15 sets he has played in the past two weeks, mocking supposed explanations as to why this year, so different for so many reasons, could be different for Nadal in the City of Lights.
One line of thought was the shift of the data from May-June to September-October. Another was linked to Nadal’s decision to skip the U.S. Open, leaving him with just three games since tennis resumed in August after his pandemic-forced hiatus.
Another involved Schwartzman, a 28-year-old Argentinian: he upset Nadal in two sets on clay at the Italian Open last month. But that still left their heads-up record at 9-1 in Nadal’s favor, and it showed why on Friday.
With a 6-foot Schwartzman jumping to reach for two-handed backhands in response to the high-bouncing topspin forehands of his formidable enemy, Nadal was content as ever to engage in lengthy, energy-consuming exchanges in the early going. The opener took 14 minutes to complete just 14 points, six of which took at least ten hits, with a maximum of 28, before Nadal held on.
“The beginning, in every single match I play against Rafa, it’s always, like, 25 minutes, and it’s 1-all,” Schwartzman said with a chuckle. “I expect that.”
That determined how things would go in this set: 22 of 69 points included a double-digit hit count. And Nadal’s 16-6 lead in the total number of winners in this set made all the difference; the numbers were 38-24 at the end of the game.
He would pressurize the second serve by standing right on the bottom line to receive, much closer than usual, winning the point on each of the first five times Schwartzman started an issue with an error.
Nadal was also good on the net, taking the point in 13 of his 15 forward trips in straight sets.
After climbing a break in the third, Nadal was a bit shaky, breaking herself twice as Schwartzman refused to go quiet.
“The best part of the game from me,” Schwartzman called the latter half of the final set.
Only 1,000 spectators are allowed onto the pitch each day, due to increasing COVID-19 cases in France, and the sparse crowd on-site applauded Schwartzman at the end of the third, probably not so much because they were so invested in a win for him but because they wanted to watch more tennis.
A key game came to 5-all in the third, lasted more than 10 minutes, and featured three breakpoints for Schwartzman. Get one of those, and he’d be needed for that set.
But Nadal obliterated them with aggressive play: two quick forehand winners and a volley winner from a delayed service-and-volley net rush.
He continued to assert himself in the tiebreak, causing fans to sing, “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” as they have so many times in the past.
“It’s important to go through all the process. You have to suffer. You can’t pretend you’re in a Roland Garros final without suffering. That’s what happened there,” Nadal said about the tight third set. “But I found a way, no?”