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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, October 9, 2020

Shadows crept across Court Philippe Chatrier to start today’s semifinal.

A dynamic Rafael Nadal spent the next few hours engulfing the place in electric energy.

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The reigning champion defeated Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(0) driving into his record-extending 13th Roland Garros final—and moving to within one win of Grand Slam history.

The 12-time Roland Garros champion can match rival Roger Federer’s major mark by capturing his 20th career Grand Slam title when he takes on world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who held off seventh-seeded Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, in Sunday’s French Open final.

"The only thing I know is to play against Novak, I need to play my best," Nadal said. "Without playing my best tennis, situation is very difficult. I know that is a court that I have been playing well for such a long time, so that helps. But at the same time he has an amazing record here, too, being in the final rounds almost every single time.

"[Novak] is one of the toughest opponents possible. But I am here to keep trying my best. I like to play in this scenario. I know I have to make a step forward. I think I did one today. But for Sunday is not enough. I need to make another one. That's what I'm looking for. I going to work hard to try to make that happen."

Unleashing his twisting topspin drives that sometimes bounded shoulder high on Schwartzman, Nadal raised his Roland Garros record to 99-2, including a perfect 13-0 mark in semifinals.

Commanding the center of the court, the second-seeded Spaniard belted 38 winners and tormented Schwartzman's second serve winning 21 of 34 points and converting six of nine break-point chances. Nadal even pulled out the surprise serve and volley to navigate a stress test holding for 6-5.

"You have to suffer. You can't pretend to be in a final of Roland Garros without suffering," Nadal said. "That's what happened there. But I found a way, no? I did a serve and volley later. With the 15-40 I played two great forehands. Then in the deuce, again another good forehand to the line.

"Of course, that's the way. I need to play that way. At the same time is important because, you know, is not like an unusual situation, no? Is unusual I didn't play much tennis for the last six months. To believe that you can keep doing this kind of stuff, you need to win matches, you need to go through this process again."

After a lengthy opening game and tricky late third set sequence, Nadal blitzed the first-time semifinalist in a stirring tiebreaker to seal a three-hour, nine-minute triumph as the fewer than 1,500 fans insided Court Philippe Chatrier chanted "Rafa! Rafa! Rafa!"

"Rafael Nadal right now, he's always trying to find the moment to have the solutions in every single moment," Schwartzman said. "At that time when I was playing better than him and finding the way maybe to go to the fourth, he did two winners and then one serve and volley. You didn't expect. You expect to play every point, clay points, in that moment...But Rafa is Rafa. I think he knows how to improve."

A swarming baseline attack and snarling intensity empowered Nadal, who has not surrendered a set advancing to his 28th major final—three behind Federer’s record of 31 Grand Slam finals.

Nadal rode a 28-match Roland Garros winning streak— dropping just three sets in that span—into today’s first semifinal. While Schwartzman was empowered by his straight-sets win over the king of clay on Rome’s red clay last month. For stretches of this match, the 5’7” Schwartzman was smacking his forehand harder than Nadal, who left his backhand short in the court late in the fourth set but was banging that shot with vigor in the breaker.

Consider Schwartzman’s massive challenge. Coming off the career high of his epic five hour, eight-minute upset of US Open champion Dominic Thiem to reach his first major semifinal on Wednesday, Schwartzman needed to rest, recover then elevate energy levels again to try to knock off Nadal on the Chatrier Court where the 12-time Roland Garros champion had never lost a semifinal.

"It's different playing against Djokovic, Federer, Rafa," Schwartzman said. "It's not easy playing them five sets because you have to play your best tennis maybe for three, four hours, five hours. It's not easy. It's not easy.

Physically it's very hard. Mentally it's very hard. To improve and to beat the best guys on tour, you have to play them and you have to beat them. I like to play five sets. I feel really good today. Physically I was perfect. But, yeah, it's tough to keep the level really high against these guys for maybe more than three hours."

Tennis Express

In his Rome upset, Schwartzman converted five of nine break points toppling the Spaniard for the first time in 10 meetings.

In today’s rematch, the man in black bunted a clever drop shot for a second break point in the opening game. Nadal returned the favor with a drop volley to deny it then knifed a backhand to finally finish a 14-minute opener.

Denying two break points, Nadal exploited a double fault and netted backhand from the Argentinean to break for a 2-0 lead only to see Schwartzman break right back.

Though Schwartzman held a break point in the champion’s first three service games, Nadal stayed strong holding for 4-1 after a full 40 minutes of play.

A sweaty first set filled with lengthy baseline battles, some timely trips to net and drop shots from both men ended with Schwartzman netting a backhand.

The weight of Nadal’s baseline drives were clearly impactful: he hit 16 winners compared to 6 for Schwartzman in the 65-minute opener. Equally effective, Nadal crept closer to the baseline to return Schwartzman’s second serve; the Argentinean won just three points on second serve in the first set.

The red clay road back from a set down against Nadal can be a brutal journey. Nadal ran off 12 of 16 points breaking in the third game and backing up the break for a 3-1 second-set lead.

The left-hander lashed his first ace down the T stamping his second love hold of the set for 5-3.

Crackling crosscourt combinations from Nadal, combined with the Spaniard’s speed around the court, shrunk space for Schwartzman to strike. When the Argentinean tried to amp up his aggression, he sometimes opened court for Nadal’s searing counterstrikes.

The second-seeded Spaniard scored his fourth break of the day to seal a two-set lead.

The bad news for Schwartzman: Nadal was 217-1 when winning the first two sets in Grand Slam matches. The worse news: Nadal had dropped just three sets in 12 prior Paris semifinals rolled through eight straight points posting the break at love for 3-1.

At that point the end of the road was looming.

Still, Schwartzman seldom met a point he didn’t think he could win. That positive energy, some jolting strikes and spunky spirit helped him break back in the seventh game and hold in the eighth. The 5’7” Argentinean hits much bigger than his size suggests and was hammering his shots with the fervor of a man determined to dent the terre battue as the third set escalated.

Down double break point in the 11th game, Nadal turned on the aggression with three straight forehand strikes only to see Schwartzman slam a diagonal forehand winner for a third break point. Nadal nullified it with his first serve-and-volley.

In the tiebreak, Nadal brought out the heavy artillery of attack and Schwartzman blinked.

Wisely covering the line to intercept a Schwartzman pass, Nadal wristed a reflex volley back then blocked a forehand stretch volley for 2-0 and the mini break. Firing a flat backhand crosscourt gave him a second mini break at 3-0.

Tiebreakers remind how fast fortunes can flip as Schwartzman bungled an overhead putting Nadal up 4-0. Schwartzman netted a backhand to end it as Nadal thrust both arms toward the sky amid chants of “Rafa! Rafa! Rafa!” from the fans scattered throughout Chatrier.

In a career filled with spectacular spikes, this win is special because it was rooted in Nadal’s Rome loss and puts him one victory away from equaling rival Federer’s men’s Grand Slam record by capturing his 20th career Grand Slam championship in Sunday’s final.

A decade ago, Nadal collected his first career US Open championship to complete the career Grand Slam with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Djokovic in the Flushing Meadows final at Arthur Ashe Stadium. That night, Djokovic was asked if Nadal was on pace to become the Greatest Of All Time.

"Definitely," Djokovic said without hesitation that night in New York. "He has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever.”

Nadal can take another step on that monumental march on Sunday.


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