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Rafa Nadal Beats Schwartzman And Novak Beats Tsitsipas • Finals Are Set for French Open Tennis At Roland Garros

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after winning against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece.

By Alix Ramsay

Here we go again, then: Rafa Nadal against Novak Djokovic in the final of the French Open. Just when we thought that this bizarre year would turn up something different – Dominic Thiem winning the US Open, for example – the old boys have brought us back to square one.

What information could be gleaned from the semi-finals as Nadal beat Diego Schwartzman and Djokovic beat Stefanos Tsitsipas?

Well, it seems that Djokovic has managed to reprise his Lazarus act. From being a suitable case for treatment in the last round (sore legs, sore arm, sore neck and dodgy eyes), he was scampering around like a supercharged whippet for five sets against Tsitsipas. Then again, there is nothing new in that. He is famed for his need of medical help when he is in trouble and then, once he has won, for his powers of recovery. That is not exactly news.

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts after winning against Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.

Yet we did learn that Rafa Nadal will have to play a good deal better in the final against Djokovic than he did against Schwartzman if he wants to win his 13th Coupe des Mousquetaires.

That may sound like heresy given the defending champion won in straight sets (he is yet to drop a set, after all), but it was not a match to settle the nerves of the Rafa fans. He won 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 but the score does not give a clue about the nature of the encounter.

The opening game took 14 minutes and 14 points. From 40-15 up, Nadal had to fend off two break points before he finally got what he wanted. As the first game dragged on and on, the worry was that, if this match went to five sets, not only would Djokovic have plenty of time to get over his various injury issues, he would also have time to baptise his grandchildren. This was not a good start from the king of Roland Garros.

When he then broke Schwartzman, everyone sighed with relief. Opening game nerves. Even serial champions get them. But he’s 2-0 up now. We’ll be all right. Off you go, Rafa.

How wrong we were. Another flurry of breaks; more nail-chewing from the faithful. It took 64 minutes to secure that first set by which time even the ball kids were beginning to look old. Still, at least he had a set in the bag and after another 44 minutes, he had doubled that advantage. And that is when it all got rather messy.

From 3-1 up, Nadal switched off. Admittedly, Schwartzman – who is not only a great athlete but also a very canny match player – was doing his level best to hit the cover off any ball that came his way, but when Nadal is two sets and break to the good, he usually turns on the afterburners and speeds to the finish. But, this time, he didn’t.

Nadal in action against Schwartzman.

The errors flew thick and fast from his racket; he dropped serve twice in a row (although he broke Schwartzman in between) and he dug himself into a hole. Only as the set moved to its conclusion did the light come back on – and then only when the Argentine had break points. Finally, in the tiebreak, he took care of business and did not allow his tormentor so much as point. At last, he had got the job done.

Nadal, though was happy with his work. He had lost to Schwartzman in Rome a few weeks before and, back then, he was just easing himself out of lockdown. That loss was only his third match since everything stopped in March.

“I think the experience of Rome help me in some way,” he said, “because I was able to take a look on the match, to analyse the things that worked well and things that, of course, didn’t work. Have been most of them, no?

“We tried to go on court with a plan, with the right determination. In some way I think I played tactically the right match. I think at the half of the first set I make a couple mistakes tactically and of course technically. But in general terms, I am super happy about the match.

“I think I played solid. I played with the right determination in most of the moments of the match. Especially in the tiebreak; I finished the match playing well. I needed to be a little bit more aggressive – a little bit – at the half of the third set when I had the score in my favour. I lost couple of opportunities there to close the match before and to not suffer like I suffered at the end.”

If, on Sunday, he throws Djokovic a lifeline like that third set, he could be toast. Nadal, though, does not see it that way. He won, despite his errors, and that can only be a good foundation for Sunday’s match. And, after all, Djokovic had to go the distance on Friday to win 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1.

“Is important to go through all the process,” Nadal said. “You have to suffer. You can’t pretend to be in a final of Roland Garros without suffering. That’s what happened there.

“But I found a way, no? 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.”

So he went through it and came out the other side unscathed.

Djokovic, meanwhile, cheerfully pointed to the fact that he “felt like there was a difference between us, fitness-wise, at the start of the fifth set” after he beat Tsitsipas. And there was, although what that says about the Greek and what it says about the veracity of the Serb’s injury complaints in the previous round, no one knows.

Djokovic in action against Tsitsipas during their men’s semi final match.

But, sore bits or no, the world No.1 knows he needs to be on his toes to beat Nadal in Paris. He has faced him seven times at Roland Garros and won just the once – that was in the quarter-final in 2015 when Nadal was struggling with his confidence and his form. In their two previous finals, Nadal has won with a set to spare. And for all that Djokovic leads their career rivalry 29-26, his results in Paris are not to be mentioned in the same sentence as Nadal’s. This is the Serb’s fifth final; he has won one. This is Nadal’s 13th final and he has never lost in the championship match yet.

A mad year, another Roland Garros and, yet, we are back to square one.