Rafael Nadal reached a record-extending 14th French Open semi-final on Wednesday with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 win over Diego Schwartzman, setting up a potential last-four showdown with world number one Novak Djokovic.
Nadal, bidding for a 14th Roland Garros title and record 21st major triumph, dropped his first set at the tournament since 2019 — ending a run of 36 consecutive sets won in Paris by the Spanish third seed.
The 35-year-old Nadal improved his incredible French Open record to 105 wins and two losses as he advanced to his 35th Grand Slam semi-final. He beat Argentine 10th seed Schwartzman in the last four of the 2020 edition.
“It’s always incredible for me to return to the semi-finals for another time,” said Nadal.
“Diego is such an amazing player with so much talent, today was a very difficult challenge.”
Nadal and Schwartzman had both progressed to the last eight without dropping a set.
After Nadal took the opener he faltered while serving to stay in the second set, shanking long to concede his first set at Roland Garros since beating Dominic Thiem in four sets in the 2019 final.
“I started bad the second set and then was able to come back, but then the game at 4-4, returning with the wind helping, I played a bad game and had a tricky situation serving to not lose the set. Well done to him, he played well,” said Nadal.
The Spaniard regrouped and grabbed a decisive break in the ninth game of the third set, winning the final nine games against a weary Schwartzman to close out victory.
“I needed to play a little bit more aggressive and I think I did later, so I am very happy for that,” added Nadal.
He awaits the winner of Wednesday’s nighttime quarter-final between Djokovic and Italian ninth seed Matteo Berrettini.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will set their sights on more Grand Slam history at Roland Garros as the French Open embraces a new and eerily empty era of nighttime tennis.
A 14th title in Paris for Nadal would take him to a record-setting 21st major, surpassing the mark he shares with Roger Federer who has already written off his hopes of adding to his lone success in the French capital back in 2009.
Djokovic, the champion in 2016, can move to 19 Grand Slam titles with victory.
That would make the world number one the first man in over half a century to win all four majors on multiple occasions.
Nadal arrives in Paris buoyed by having defeated Djokovic in the Rome Masters final in what was the pair’s 57th meeting.
It was Nadal’s 10th title in the Italian capital.
Not that he was reading too much into the statistics as far as Roland Garros is concerned.
“I think I can work on a couple of things that I can do a little bit better,” he insisted.
‘Work right way’
“I just need to keep going. I know what I need to work on and I’m going to do it. Work, relax mentally, and work the right way.”
At last year’s delayed Roland Garros, Nadal swept past Djokovic in straight sets in the final.
It was Nadal’s 100th win at the tournament against just two losses since his 2005 title-winning debut.
Giving Djokovic hope, however, is the knowledge that he was responsible for one of those losses, in the 2015 quarter-finals.
He is also a four-time runner-up although three of those defeats in the championship match came against the Spaniard.
Only two men have previously managed to win all four of the Slams on more than one occasion — Roy Emerson and Rod Laver of Australia.
Laver’s achievement came back in 1969.
“I think I have a good chance to go all the way in Paris, but of course it’s a long shot,” said Djokovic who captured the season’s first Grand Slam title in Australia for a ninth time in February.
Federer, with his 40th birthday fast approaching, remains the sentimental favourite but his priority will be an assault on Wimbledon where he has been champion eight times.
“I’m not so sure in the last 50 years of the French Open, somebody just rocks up at nearly 40 years old, being out for a year and a half, and wins everything straight,” said Federer after losing his only clay-court match this year in Geneva last week.
Of the chasing pack, two-time runner-up Dominic Thiem is low on form and confidence.
A run to the Madrid semi-finals was followed by a straight sets defeat to Cameron Norrie in his Lyon opener.
World number two Daniil Medvedev has yet to win a match at Roland Garros in four attempts.
In Rome, he fell at the first hurdle and half-jokingly pleaded with the referee to disqualify him such is his dislike for clay.
World number five Stefanos Tsitsipas is the most likely man to upset the odds of Nadal and Djokovic again making the final.
The 22-year-old Greek won the prestigious Monte Carlo clay-court title in April, had match point before losing the Barcelona final to Nadal, and then lifted the Lyon trophy.
He has beaten Nadal on clay in Madrid in 2019 and stretched Djokovic to five sets at the 2020 French Open semi-finals.
This year’s Roland Garros will be the second taking place under the shadow of the coronavirus.
Just over 5,000 fans a day will be allowed on site until June 9 when that figure rises to 13,000.
For the first time this year, there will be nine evening sessions at the tournament.
However, a Covid-19 curfew from 9 pm means that eight of those sessions will be played out inside an empty Court Philippe Chatrier.
The French Open was on Thursday delayed by a week to May 30-June 13 in the hope that heightened Covid-19 restrictions in France will have eased by then to allow the maximum number of fans to attend the event.
The French tennis federation (FFT) said the decision had been made in the wake of French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement last month that the government wanted some cultural venues to be back up and running from mid-May onwards, “subject to the improvement of the health situation”.
FFT president Gilles Moretton said the week’s delay “will give the health situation more time to improve and should optimise our chances of welcoming spectators at Roland-Garros”.
“For the fans, the players and the atmosphere, the presence of spectators is vital for our tournament, the spring’s most important international sporting event,” Moretton added.
The qualifying rounds of the clay-court Grand Slam event will now be held on May 24-28, followed by the main draw from May 30 to June 13.
Wimbledon, the next Grand Slam tournament after the French Open, said in a statement that the decision had no impact on its planned start date of June 28.
The initial Wimbledon warm-up events, however, start on June 7, midway through Roland Garros.
There will now only be a two-week break between the French Open final and the start of Wimbledon.
However, the decision to move the French Open was carefully discussed with the other major tournaments, unlike last year when the FFT moved the claycourt showpiece into a September-October slot because of the pandemic in what was criticised in some quarters as a unilateral decision.
Ugo Valensi, executive director of the Grand Slam Board, said: “These remain extremely challenging times for communities around the world, and, while there is optimism for the future, it is clear that this pandemic is very much still with us.
“The Grand Slams represent the most significant spotlights for our sport and so we will do everything possible to ensure they can be staged successfully.
“Further to consultation, the decision by the FFT to postpone Roland-Garros by a week in order to enhance the likelihood of the tournament taking place successfully is therefore fully supported by the Grand Slam Board.”
– ‘Agile approach’ – The FFT’s decision was also given the green light by the ATP and WTA, the governing bodies of men’s and women’s professional tennis respectively.
“Tennis has required an agile approach to the calendar over the past 12 months in order to manage the challenges of the pandemic, and this continues to be the case,” read a joint ATP/WTA statement.
“Both the WTA and @atptour are supportive of the decision and are working in consultation with all parties impacted by the postponement to optimize the calendar for players, tournaments and fans, in the lead up to and following Roland-Garros.”
Crowds were limited to just 1,000 spectators each day at last year’s rearranged French Open.
Rafael Nadal will defend his title after winning a record-extending 13th French Open last year, while Iga Swiatek of Poland is the reigning women’s champion.
Roland Garros was one of the many sporting events affected by the fall-out from the global coronavirus pandemic. Last season, the professional tours were suspended from March until August, with Wimbledon cancelled. This year’s Australian Open was also pushed back by three weeks.
Covid restrictions were tightened across France last Wednesday although all professional sport is carrying on, albeit behind closed doors. President Macron has expressed a wish to re-open cinemas, museums and theatres in mid-May.
World number one Novak Djokovic stormed to his 70th win at Roland Garros on Thursday with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 demolition of Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis.
The top seed went level with Roger Federer for career victories at the tournament, still 25 behind Rafael Nadal’s all-time best.
Djokovic, the 2016 champion, and chasing an 18th Grand Slam title, will face Colombian lucky loser Daniel Elahi Galan, ranked 153, for a place in the last 16.
“It was difficult for Ricardas in the third set as he had an injury and couldn’t move very well,” said Djokovic whose quickfire 83-minute win was eased by his opponent needing treatment on a back injury after the second set.
“But I felt good just as I did in the first round and I want to continue like that.”
Djokovic also only dropped five games in his first-round match against Mikael Ymer who likened facing the Serb to a “shark killing its prey”.
Serena Williams made a slow but successful start to her latest pursuit of a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title with a 7-6 (7/2), 6-0 win over Kristie Ahn in the French Open first round.
World number 102 Ahn served for the opening set at 5-4 but Williams forced a tie-break she dominated before charging through the second set to book a clash with Tsvetana Pironkova for a spot in the last 32.
The American star is chasing an elusive 24th Grand Slam title to match Margaret Court’s all-time mark, but clay is her least favoured surface.
An error-prone beginning from Williams left world number 102 Kristie Ahn serving for the first set before the three-time Roland Garros champion prevailed 7-6 (7/2), 6-0.
Williams, playing at the French Open for the 18th time, dropped serve twice as Ahn moved 5-4 ahead in the opener in a rematch of their first-round encounter at Flushing Meadows.
But the sixth seed forced a tie-break that she sealed with an ace after a 74-minute slog before charging to an ultimately comfortable victory.
“She played very well in the first set, it wasn’t easy for me and she hit a lot of winners,” said Williams. “It was important for me to stay focused.”
Williams seeded sixth here, has not gone beyond the last 16 in Paris since her defeat to Garbine Muguruza in 2016 final. Her last major came at 2017 Australian Open while pregnant.
Meanwhile, Thiem, the runner-up to Rafael Nadal in Paris the past two years, defeated 2014 US Open champion Cilic 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in their second meeting at a major this month.
“My level was good. I was very happy with the way I played from the beginning to the end basically,” said Thiem.
Having captured his maiden Slam in New York, Thiem is trying to become the only man in the Open era to win his first two majors at successive tournaments.
A steady display from Thiem saw the Austrian break Cilic six times under the roof of Court Philippe Chatrier on another gloomy day at Roland Garros, pushed back from its customary May-June slot due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I really love this tournament, it’s by far my best Grand Slam tournament so far,” said Thiem, who plays American qualifier Jack Sock in the second round.
“I’m from Austria so I know how it is to play in these cold conditions. I love it when it’s not too fast. I felt well from the first moment I came here.” AFP
French Open favourite Simona Halep said Friday she was grateful to just have the chance to play at Roland Garros this year after the tennis calendar was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Delayed four months from its traditional spring billing, players must contend with vastly different conditions and far cooler temperatures than they are used to in the French capital.
“To play Roland Garros in September, end of September, it’s a little bit weird,” said Halep, the 2018 champion.
“But it’s nice that we have the chance to play at this tournament. We should actually thank everyone for fighting so hard to make it possible.”
The Romanian was among six top 10 players to skip the recent US Open over Covid-19 fears, but the extended lay-off has not impacted her form.
Halep comes into the competition owning a 20-2 record this season. She has won her last three events, in Dubai before the virus shutdown, and then titles on clay in Prague and Rome.
The top seed begins her campaign against Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo and can return to the number one ranking with a second French Open title.
With defending champion Ashleigh Barty opting not to play and US Open winner Naomi Osaka sidelined by injury, Halep is the only top three representatives in the field here.
“I’m honoured to hear that I am the favourite, people thinking that I’m the favourite. But I don’t look in that direction,” said Halep.
“It’s not extra pressure. I’m used to this kind of pressure because I’ve been No. 1 seeded in the past. I’ve been in this position,” she added.
“I take it as a normal tournament. So no extra pressure for me, it’s just a positive pressure that I have.”
– ‘Feel the cold’ –
Conditions are expected to be heavier with rain forecast for much of the first week. Fortunately, the showpiece Philippe Chatrier Court will debut its new retractable roof.
Halep, unbeaten in 14 matches, is confident she will adjust to whatever challenges arise.
“When it’s cold, it’s a little bit heavier and a little bit different. It’s a big difference between Rome and here, that’s for sure. 15 degrees less,” she said.
“I feel the cold. I feel like struggling a little bit. But for everybody is the same.
“Every time I play on these courts I like because they are a little bit harder and the ball bounces a little bit more. The conditions are good for me, in my opinion.”
Halep, who is also the Wimbledon champion, has reached the final in Paris on three occasions — in 2014, 2017 and 2018.
Maria Sharapova got the better of her in 2014 with a shock loss to unseeded Latvian Jelena Ostapenko three years ago.
Halep, however, eventually made her major breakthrough 12 months later when she beat Sloane Stephens for the title in Paris.
“Every tournament I play, it’s a dream to win it. French Open is very special because it was the first Grand Slam. It will stay forever like this,” said Halep.
“Every time I come here I have the desire to play as good as possible and to go till the end. But as we know, every match is a battle, every match is very tough. I’m not thinking about the title right now.”
A maximum of only 1,000 spectators will be allowed each day at Roland Garros after the French government insisted Thursday on tougher restrictions to counter the resurgence of the coronavirus.
Organisers of the French Open, which gets underway four months later than planned in Paris on Sunday, had hoped for a maximum of 5,000.
That figure had already been reduced from 20,000 and then 11,500.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex insisted that the Grand Slam tournament must be subject to the same restrictions imposed Thursday on sports events taking place in designated ‘red zones’ where the coronavirus is showing signs of resurgence.
“We will apply the same rules at Roland Garros as elsewhere,” said Castex. “We go from 5,000 to 1,000.”
Sources told AFP, however, that the figure does not include credential holders such as officials, media, players and staff.
Earlier Thursday, French Open chief Guy Forget said he had hoped to protect the 5,000 limit and that the nature of the Roland Garros complex would work in the tournament’s favour.
“We are able to accommodate 5,000, as small as it is, on a 12-hectare area,” he said.
“We stage the tournament on the equivalent of 15 football fields, outdoors. Everyone wears a mask, even the ball boys and girls and chair umpires.”
The limit of 1,000 fans a day represents less than 3% of last year’s total attendance of almost 520,000.
There will also be financial repercussions.
In 2019, Roland Garros accounted for around 80% of the French Tennis Federation (FFT) budget — 255.4 million euros out of a total 325 million.
Ticket sales generate nearly 20% of tournament revenue.
When the planned limit was 11,500 spectators, Forget estimated that “the tournament’s proceeds (would) be halved”, which corresponded to between 130 and 140 million euros.
The US Open in New York, which ended just under two weeks ago, banned all spectators from its sprawling Flushing Meadows complex.
Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since the Second World War.
– Murray v Wawrinka blockbuster-
Meanwhile, three years after the match which turned out to be the “end of my hip” Andy Murray on Thursday was handed a Roland Garros rematch against Stan Wawrinka in the pick of first round matches.
In 2017, Murray and 2015 French Open champion Wawrinka fought out a thrilling five-set semi-final which saw the veteran Swiss triumph from two sets to one down.
Murray, 33, has arguably been paying the price ever since with the former world number one battling a long-standing hip injury which at one stage threatened to end his career.
Both Murray and Wawrinka are three-time major winners.
World ranked 111 Murray needed a wild card to play in Paris but will at least be buoyed by a 12-8 winning record over the 35-year-old Wawrinka, the world 17.
World number one Novak Djokovic, bidding to win Roland Garros for the second time after his 2016 victory and collect an 18th major, starts against Sweden’s Mikael Ymer, ranked 80.
Defending champion Rafael Nadal, seeded two and looking for a 13th French Open crown, begins his campaign against Egor Gerasimov, the 83rd-ranked Belarusian.
Nadal, who is one Slam shy of equaling Roger Federer’s all-time record of 20, is scheduled to face third seed and US Open champion Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals.
The 34-year-old Spaniard defeated the Austrian in the last two finals in Paris.
Thiem has an intriguing opener against Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open winner and a former world number three.
With Federer not taking part, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev is Djokovic’s scheduled semi-final opponent.
However, Medvedev has never won a match at Roland Garros in three visits.
Defending women’s champion and world number one Ashleigh Barty is skipping this year’s French Open over health fears.
– Serena v Azarenka in last 16? –
Also missing is US Open winner Naomi Osaka through injury.
Simona Halep, the 2018 champion, is top seed and the Romanian starts against Spain’s world number 70 Sara Sorribes Tormo.
Serena Williams, a three-time champion in Paris, continues her bid for a record-equalling 24th major.
Williams, who turns 39 on Saturday, begins against compatriot Kristie Ahn who she defeated in the first round of the US Open.
She could face old rival Victoria Azarenka in the last 16, just weeks after the Belarusian won their US Open semi-final.
Belinda Bencic said an arm injury would prevent her from coming to Paris.
After Barty, Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, Switzerland’s Bencic is the fourth member of the top 10 to skip the tournament.
Novak Djokovic will renew his love-hate relationship with Roland Garros in the knowledge that it’s himself rather than 12-time champion Rafael Nadal who could pose the greatest barrier to winning a second Paris title and 18th Grand Slam crown.
The only man to beat Djokovic in 2020 is Djokovic after the Serb’s hair-trigger temper prompted a sensational disqualification from the US Open.
The 33-year-old heads for the French capital with a 31-1 record this year after his New York brain-fade, which saw him accidentally hit a line judge with a ball, was followed by a record 36th Masters title in Rome.
Djokovic’s 2016 triumph at Roland Garros allowed him to become only the third man after Don Budge and Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time.
Not even Nadal, the holder of 19 majors, or Roger Federer, with a record 20 Slams, can match that staggering achievement.
Federer will miss the French Open as he rehabs his injured knee while Nadal has played just three matches since February, a ring-rustiness evident in his quarter-final exit in Rome.
However, Djokovic refused to get carried away by his chances at Roland Garros ahead of Sunday’s start.
“It’s Nadal,” insisted the world number one when pushed on who heads to Paris as the favourite.
“The record that he has there, the history of his results, you just can’t put anybody in front of him.”
Djokovic is right to be cautious after experiencing numerous low points on the red clay of Paris.
In the 2012 final against Nadal, having won eight games in a row, he was up a break and pushing to level the match at two sets apiece when rain brought an overnight suspension.
Play resumed the following day but Djokovic’s momentum was lost and a double-fault on championship point completed his misery.
Twelve months later, Djokovic was poised for a semi-final win over Nadal with just a routine putaway required to help give him a 5-3 final set lead and a chance to serve for the match.
However, he chose a smash rather than a soothing touch. He tumbled into the net, losing the point and Nadal pounced to eventually take the tie after four hours and 37 minutes.
In 2018, he lost a quarter-final to world number 72 Marco Cecchinato while last year he was beaten in the semi-finals by Dominic Thiem.
That match took two days to complete, featured numerous rain stoppages and winds so strong that a courtside umbrella was sent flying across court.
“Obviously when you’re playing in hurricane kind of conditions, it’s hard to perform your best,” said Djokovic.
– ‘Unpredictable year’ –
Nadal, who skipped the defence of his US Open title due to fears over coronavirus, eyes a 13th French Open.
Since his title-winning debut in 2005, the Spaniard has only lost twice at Roland Garros in 95 matches – to Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic in 2015.
The 34-year-old may appear to be under-cooked after his last-eight exit in Rome to Diego Schwartzman.
However, the last time he suffered such an early departure from the Italian capital was in 2017 — just weeks later he was lifting a 10th French Open without dropping a set.
“It’s a completely special and unpredictable year,” admitted Nadal of a French Open pushed back four months due to the pandemic.
The unusual sight of Roland Garros being played in the autumn also means radically different conditions to those expected in its normal time slot of May and June.
That could suit newly-crowned US Open winner Thiem who has lost the last two finals to Nadal in Paris.
The world number three Austrian has 17 career titles with 10 of those on clay.
Four of his five wins over Nadal have come on clay with three of four victories against Djokovic carved out on the sport’s most testing surface.
World number five Daniil Medvedev has yet to win a match at the tournament in three visits while sixth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas made the last 16 in 2019, losing a five-set marathon to former champion Stan Wawrinka.
World number seven Alexander Zverev, fresh from his runners-up spot in New York, has made the quarter-finals in the last two seasons.