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Roland Garros Late-Night • Rafa Fumes But Stays On Track For The Final

By Alix Ramsay

Rafa Nadal is in the semi-finals of the French Open. He is not happy, but he is in the semi-finals. In fact, he is really not happy at all.

He is not one to throw a hissy fit; he is not one to start effing and jeffing about the organisers. But when Rafa is not best pleased, everyone knows about it. And on Tuesday night, he was seriously narked. To be strictly accurate, on Wednesday morning, he was seriously narked.

He wrapped up his 7-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over Jannik Sinner in two hours and 49 minutes. There was nothing unusual in that. But when he won the final point, it was 1.26am. And it was perishing cold.

In a moment of scheduling magic, the French had decided to put five singles matches on their new, improved Court Phillipe Chatrier. They began with two women’s matches – one of which, naturally, went to three sets – and then started the men’s programme with Dominic Thiem against Diego Schwartzman. Now, anyone with any sense would have predicted that those two old friends were not going to be quick. When they started trading service breaks like brokers trade shares, the day looked doomed.

For five hours and eight minutes they huffed and they puffed. Afternoon became evening, teatime became supper time and still they slogged it out. In the locker room, Rafa tried to stay sane and relaxed. We still had another women’s match to go before he could get on court.

Eventually Schwartzman held his nerve and, at last, his serve to win 7-6, 5-7, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2. The relief was palpable: for Schwartzman, he was through to his first grand slam semi-final; for Thiem, he could at last go home and get some rest and for everybody else, there was a chance that this day would eventually end.

Iga Swiatek did the decent thing and raced past Martina Trevisan 6-3, 6-1 in an hour and 18 minutes and then, finally, it was Rafa’s turn.

Iga Swiatek of Poland reacts after winning against Martina Trevisan of Italy.

“I know football players plays under these conditions, but is little bit different. They are all the time moving. We stop, we come back, we stop on the changeovers. It is a sport that you are stopped in a lot of moments, no?

By this point, the temperature had dropped a few more degrees while the wind was still whipping around the large and all but empty stadium. It was around the 52 deg F mark which may not be quite the depths of an Alaskan winter but it is still pretty nippy to running around in your vest and knickers. And Rafa was not happy.

“The problem is the weather,” he said once his ordeal was over. “Of course, is not ideal finish, a match at 1:30 in the morning. But the problem is the weather. Is too cold to play. Honestly, is very, very cold to play tennis, no?

Rafael Nadal of Spain in action against Jannik Sinner of Italy.

“I think is little bit dangerous for the body play with these very heavy conditions. But that’s what happened today.”

For Rafa, the problem is particularly acute because he sweats. All the players get hot and sweaty when they run around but if Rafa merely walks briskly, he drips. When he is playing flat out, he pours. And then, every few minutes, he has to sit down in the swirling wind and the 52 degrees. That 90 second break can come as blessed relief in the heat of the day and in the height of summer but at 11pm on a chill October night, it is miserable. And, potentially, dangerous.

“I really don’t know why they put five matches on the Chatrier today,” Rafa said. “That was a risk. I saw immediately yesterday when they send me the schedule because there is a chance there is a couple of long matches. That’s what happened. Little bit unlucky, of course.

Rafael Nadal in action against Jannik Sinner during their men’s quarter final match.

“For me, I just tried to be patient, accept everything, and be in a positive shape. That’s what I did.”

He now has two days off before he has to risk the cold again so at least he has time to recover from his late night. But it was still unfair on both him and Sinner.

The young Italian did well enough as Tuesday turned into Wednesday – he was a break up in the each of the first two sets – but he could not keep the pressure up. Rafa simply wouldn’t let him.

“Obviously, it’s tough against him,” Sinner said. “He’s not missing that much. The ball is quite heavy. You have to be with the right balance on court, to don’t go too much and not too low. If you don’t go with not enough speed, he will go for the winners or he’s going to move me, which he has done in the first service game of the match.

He had the ball and he started to move, to move, to move.

“After that I tried to go in the court, trying to play a little bit faster, take his time away. It worked quite well.

“I had chances in the first and second set. Unfortunately, I didn’t use them. Then when he goes up two sets to love with break, it’s not that easy. I tried to stay there. There’s been 2-Love in the third set new balls. He went a little bit more. I missed two balls. It’s not easy to get back.”

No matter, Sinner is just beginning on his path to the top (he is ranked No.75 at the moment but should be around the No.46 mark when the new rankings come out next week). The commentators heaped praise on his young shoulders with Tim Henman predicting he will be top 10 by this time next year and Chris Evert suggesting that a Nadal-Sinner rematch on a different court might bring a different result.

Jannik Sinner of Italy in action against Rafael Nadal of Spain.

“He has such anticipation and court sense,” she said. “He will have a better chance against Rafa on a faster court.”

Rafa, too was impressed with the 19-year-old (he had to be impressed with something at Roland Garros on Wednesday morning).

“He is a very, very young talent with a lot of power, great shots,” he said. “For two sets it was tough, especially at the end of that first set. I was lucky to be back from 5-6, having to break him back. The conditions here were a little bit difficult because he was hitting every ball very hard.

“For me it was difficult to pull him out of position. I think in the third set I did much better and I finished playing much more aggressive. That was the only way.”

So now Rafa must find a way past Schwartzman to reach the final. He lost to the Argentinian in Rome a couple of weeks ago. That quarter-final match was the springboard for Schwartzman’s run here and it is one that Rafa remembers well.

“He’s coming with big confidence,” Rafa said. “Two weeks in a row… He’s in the final in Rome, he’s in the semi-finals here. He beat me there. It’s a plus of confidence for him. I know that.

“I’m going to try to go on court, play my best, try to play my game, play aggressive, try to do something a little bit different than what I did in Rome, of course. Hope to be ready to play my best. I have two days to practice the things that I need to keep improving, and that’s what I going to do.”

And if the schedulers allow him to play in the daylight, that might help, too.