PARIS – Roland-Garros came to life on Wednesday in many ways.
As the French government eased coronavirus restrictions, allowing some 5,000 fans to fill Philippe Chatrier court with catchy chants and pointy Panama hats, it seemed fitting that this was the day a match had been scheduled for nearly two years. weeks.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will meet in the semi-finals of Roland Garros on Friday. The two won tough matches on Wednesday, filled with tension, noise and bursts of momentum in all directions.
Their semi-final match will be the last showdown in an epic rivalry and the second time in less than a month that they will face each other on red clay, Nadal’s favorite surface. Djokovic, however, gave him everything he could handle in their recent three-set clay court match in the Italian Open final, which Nadal won for the 10th time.
“It will be a special game with a lot of people, like it was today,” said Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman, who fought valiantly against Nadal on Wednesday to fall in four sets. “Everyone wants to see this. “
They also wanted to see the end of Djokovic’s quarter-final match with Italy’s Matteo Berrettini. But a curfew at 11 p.m. intervened. In a change at 10:54 a.m. local time with Djokovic leading one set and 3-2 in the fourth, the players made their way to the locker room as security guards. cleaned up the crowd, who was about five times bigger than any day before and had spent nearly an hour helping Berrettini out of a hole in straight sets.
Virtually the same series of events unfolded in Djokovic’s match at the Australian Open in February. Just like then, there was screaming and a lot of strolling towards the exits on Wednesday. But after about 15 minutes, the players returned to an empty stadium to complete the night’s deal.
Djokovic then finished ninth-seeded Berrettini, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5) 7-5, as a man desperate to conserve every ounce of energy for his next game.
“Very difficult conditions,” said an exhausted Djokovic at the end.
Now comes the hard part. Djokovic holds the advantage over Nadal, 29-28, although Nadal is far superior on clay, with a 19-7 record that currently looks even more impressive. It heats up in Paris, bakes the clay and makes the ball fly like Nadal loves.
“We know each other well,” said Nadal after defeating 10th seed Schwartzman 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. “Everyone knows that in these kinds of games, anything can happen. “
Djokovic said playing Nadal at Roland Garros is unlike anything else in the sport.
“It’s the biggest challenge you can have playing against Nadal on this pitch,” he said. “Every time we face each other there is this added tension and expectation. The vibrations are different when walking on the ground with him.
And yet, due to the way players are ranked in Grand Slam tournaments, strictly according to the current standings, the match takes place in the semi-finals, a round before almost anyone who knows the sport believes Nadal. , the reigning champion, the No. 3 seed and 13 times winner of this event, is expected to face Djokovic, the world No. 1.
But Nadal skipped the 2020 US Open due to pandemic concerns, lost in the Australian Open quarterfinals and played a limited program after that tournament, allowing Daniil Medvedev to s ” take second place in the world rankings.
“It’s a big difference,” Nadal said on Wednesday of his meeting with Djokovic in the semi-finals instead of the final. “The winner of this game has to keep going, and there is still a lot of work to be done to try to achieve the end goal here.”
Nadal had to do a lot of work on Wednesday to secure his place in the semi-finals. For a little while, with intense late afternoon sun making the conditions deceptively grueling, Schwartzman had Nadal on the ropes.
An attractive player who has made the most of a body just over five and a half feet tall, Schwartzman is a top-notch defenseman. What he lacks in terms of leverage and power, he makes up for by having more tricks and spins on his ropes than almost any other player on the tour. His topspin lob, which always seems to land a few inches from the baseline, is as good as it gets.
He did one of the toughest things in the sport. He beat Nadal on clay at the Italian Open last year. He’s an extremely popular player in the locker room, a figure of fascination among his peers who are typically at least half a foot taller than him and know how difficult he can be to play, especially on clay. Schwartzman is fearless and he came to fight on Wednesday.
Down a set, he fought to stay in the game and had a Roland Garros crowd – who treats Nadal like a beloved adopted son – chanting his name. He didn’t disappoint, unleashing his powerful forehand, smashing Nadal three times in the first two sets and shaking his confidence. By the end of the second set, Nadal sent weak backhands down midfield for Schwartzman to take the start and repeatedly failed to put away the overheads he usually bounced off the pitch.
Ultimately, however, no part of Schwartzman’s game is better than Nadal’s, with the possible exception of that topspin lob.
Down by 3-4 in the third set, Nadal suddenly seemed to remember where he was and what he’s accomplished here. He scored victories in the next nine games, finishing the game in 2 hours 45 minutes. In the last set, he won 25 of 30 points.
“At the end of the day it’s Rafa and he always finds the way,” Schwartzman said.
Once Nadal was finished, it was Djokovic’s turn to hold his end of the bargain.
At first, Djokovic was much more clinical than he had been in his fourth round match against fellow Italian Lorenzo Musetti, who won the first two sets against Djokovic.
With arguably the best comeback the game has ever seen, Djokovic broke Berrettini’s usually awkward serve early in the first two sets and gave Berrettini little chance of breaking his own.
Djokovic lost after leading two sets to zero just once in his career. But with no margin for error, Berrettini found the groove on his serve and Djokovic rushed in just to put the edge of his racket on the ball. Under pressure, Djokovic missed a chance to serve the third set tiebreaker. Then, with the stadium empty and his anger overflowing, Djokovic beat Berrettini to barely win in the fourth, screaming like a caveman when Berrettini’s last shot hit the middle of the net.
Djokovic has seen versions of this film before. In October, he entered the Roland-Garros final against Nadal with a still great chance against a player who had never lost the ultimate match at Roland-Garros. He appeared in good shape, and the tournament’s move into the fall due to the pandemic meant cool playing conditions that cushioned the balls, preventing them from jumping into Nadal’s favorite strike zone.
Still, Nadal bombed Djokovic, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.
Goran Ivanisevic, 2001 Wimbledon champion and coach of Djokovic, said the defeat upset Djokovic, especially after his disqualification from the U.S. Open in September, when he inadvertently hit a ball in the throat of ‘a linesman.
The victory gave Nadal his 20th Grand Slam title, tying him to Roger Federer for the most in men’s football history. Djokovic got closer to two of them in February, when he won his ninth Australian Open championship.
Now he and Nadal only meet one spot for Sunday’s in-game final, although that may not really be the case. Neither of the other two semi-finalists, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, won a Grand Slam title.
At least the big game should be over with plenty of time before curfew. Panama hats will be out in force.