Add “latest-finishing match” and “13 semifinals reached” to the considerable roster of French Open records owned by Rafael Nadal.
The 12-time champion at Roland Garros withstood an early challenge from 19-year-old Jannik Sinner and pulled away to win 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-1 in a quarterfinal that ended at nearly 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday on a windy night with the temperature in the low 50s (teens Celsius).
Competition can continue that deep into the night in Paris this year because it’s the first time artificial lights are being used for play at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament.
“Of course it’s not ideal (to) finish a match at 1:30 in the morning. But the problem is the weather. It’s too cold to play. Honestly, it’s very, very cold to play tennis, no?” Nadal said, calling it a “little bit dangerous for the body play with these very heavy conditions.”
Their quarterfinal began after 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday. It was the last match of the day on a packed schedule at Court Philippe Chatrier, which included five contests instead of the usual four because one was postponed by rain a day earlier. And Nadal-Sinner also was delayed by No. 12 seed Diego Schwartzman’s five-hour, five-set victory over No. 3 Dominic Thiem.
“I really don’t know why they put five matches on Chatrier today,” Nadal said. “That was a risk.”
No. 2 Nadal hasn’t lost a set in the tournament will take a 9-1 head-to-head edge against Schwartzman into their meeting in Friday’s semifinals.
“Two days to practice, to rest a little bit and to recover, and just try to be ready,” Nadal said.
Schwartzman has this going for him: He won their most recent matchup, beating Nadal last month on clay at a tuneup in Rome.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to have a lot of confidence,” Schwartzman said, “but, yeah, I know … that I can beat him. That’s important.”
Nadal is trying to win a 13th French Open title and 20th Grand Slam trophy overall, which would equal Roger Federer’s mark for men.
Among the many statistics that stand out about Nadal’s track record in Paris: He is 98-2 at the place, which includes 24-0 in semifinals and finals.
For the 75th-ranked Sinner, this was his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Consider this: Nadal turned pro in 2001, the year Sinner was born. Nadal made his French Open debut in 2005, turned 19 during the tournament, beat Federer in the semifinals and won the trophy.
No one since then had made it to the men’s quarterfinals at Roland Garros during his first appearance until Sinner this year. And he showed some of the groundstroke power and good footwork that helped eliminated U.S. Open runner-up Alexander Zverev and 11th-seeded David Goffin earlier in the tournament.
“Sinner is a very, very young talent with a lot of power. Great shots. For two sets, (it was) tough,” Nadal said. “He was hitting every ball very hard. And for me, it was difficult. The ball … with this cold, the spin is not there. So for me, it was difficult to pull him out of position.”
When the calendar still read “Tuesday,” Sinner nosed ahead, breaking for a 6-5 lead on Nadal’s wide forehand.
That allowed Sinner to serve for the opening set; he had yet to face a single break point.
That lead lasted all of eight minutes, because Nadal pushed right back, and broke right back, snapping off a pair of forehand winners to get to 6-all. Nadal leaped in the air to celebrate, the way he frequently did when he was the teen without all the trophies.
It didn’t take long for that set to be his via a tiebreaker. When Sinner’s forehand landed out, Nadal gritted his teeth and vigorously shook his left fist.
That pattern materialized again in the second set: Sinner broke first, to lead 3-1, and Nadal answered immediately with a break of his own.
And at crunch time in that set, it made sense that the far more experienced and far more accomplished Nadal would come through. With Sinner serving at 4-all, 40-15, Nadal reeled off four straight points — thanks in part to his famous, corner-to-corner baseline defense — to break, then served out the set.
“I had chances in the first set. I had chances in the second set. I didn’t use them,” Sinner said. “Obviously it’s tough against him. He’s not missing that much.”
To compound matters for Sinner, Nadal broke again to begin the third.
By then, while a half-dozen games were still to be played, the only remaining suspense involved which numbers, exactly, would be written on the scoreboard and on the courtside clock at the conclusion.
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