French Open 2020

Rampant Rafael Nadal into 13th final to face Djokovic for 56th time

Djokovic had match point in third set, but taken the distance by impressive Tsitsipas

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

From the start of this unusual, and unusually late French Open, things have not been their usual sunny selves.

Of course the weather in the first weeks of October are bound to be different from early June, and sure enough, it has been cold, damp, and difficult for both players and spectators, all wrapped up in layers against the conditions.

The weather, plus the concertinaed, back-to-front schedule that put the famous clay Major after the US Open hard-court Major, soon took a toll on players expected to go deep at Roland Garros: Eleven seeds lost in the first round, and six more in Round 2, among them No4 Daniil Medvedev and No8 Gael Monfils.

There were some starry runs by fresh young faces. Teenager Yannik Sinner had already started to wow tennis fans and experts alike, but even so, his run to the quarters via David Goffin and Alexander Zverev impressed.

As for the 239-ranked wild card, 20-year-old Hugo Gaston, few expected him to put out former champion Stan Wawrinka, nor to take the US Open champion Dominic Thiem to a five-set thriller in the fourth round. That performance may well have been the death knell for Thiem when he hit the fifth hour in his quarter-final against No12 seed Diego Schwartzman, and one of the favourites for the title, one of the few perhaps able to halt 12-time champion Rafael Nadal, had run out of gas following his championship run in New York.

And so to Schwartzman and his three fellow semi-finalists, the ones who did overcome the challenges and challengers. Now, of course, it fell to the No12 seed to try and halt Nadal. Not only that, should Schwartzman do ‘the impossible’ and hand out only Nadal’s third defeat in 100 matches played at Roland Garros, he may have to climb another Everest against No1 Novak Djokovic—unbeaten in any completed matches this year.

As recently as three weeks ago, the Argentine faced a similar draw at the Rome Masters, and did indeed beat Nadal—only to lose to Djokovic. But that was then: Into the Major league of five-setters, he confronted the now—19 Slam titles for Nadal, 17 for Djokovic, plus that five-hour-plus quarter-final against Thiem. Could he really take on the three top men in tennis and win?

Of course, Nadal has never wanted for incentives, and a first loss to Schwartzman in Rome, a record-equalling 20th Major title within touching distance, and never losing a French Open semi-final all speak of even greater motivation than usual for Nadal.

The two men had played just once before at Roland Garros, in the 2018 quarter-finals, and it took Nadal three-and-three-quarter hours and four sets to win. Perhaps the heavier, cooler conditions would level that playing field just a little more in the Argentine’s favour.

He certainly came out with intent, and forced Nadal through a 14-minute first game, two break points and eventually a hold.

But it warmed Nadal up nicely, and he replied with an immediate break himself, 2-0. Not to be outdone, Schwartzman outlasted the Spaniard in a couple of cross-court duels to get the break, and after half an hour, they stood at 1-2, soon to be 1-3, with another break from Nadal.

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Again, though, the Argentine worked a break chance, playing with lots of variety in shot and pace, but Nadal vamos-ed his way to a hold, 4-1, after 40 minutes. It took another extended and quality eight-minute game, but the defending champion held, 6-3, after 66 minutes.

Nadal got a quick break in the second set and this time held onto it, and after letting three break points go begging in the seventh game, he broke for the set, 6-3. He looked like a man who knew he had this match in his grasp, strutted to his chair, 24 winners in the bag and 13 points won at the net.

Even the weather had turned in Nadal’s favour—it was sunny, dry and with little wind—and he stormed on to break to love, 3-1, but he was slowed in his progress, first with an exchange of breaks, and then Schwartzman broke and held to level, 4-4.

The Argentine had a chance to break at 5-5 in a long, gritty game that Nadal eventually held after almost 12 minutes, with three hours on the clock. It would come down to a tie-break, but Schwartzman overhit too many forehands, while Nadal capitalized to steamroller the game, 7-0. He roared into his 13th Roland Garros final, 7-6(0).

If the first semi-final promised much, the second looked equally intriguing, bringing one of the young players tipped for the very top up against the man who is unequivocally at the top now—and Djokovic cannot be knocked off the No1 ranking no matter how the rest of the French Open plays out.

But in the confident, charismatic single-handed No5 seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Serb faced a man who had beaten him in two of their five meetings. Indeed the 22-year-old star could claim wins over Nadal and Roger Federer too, won the 2019 season finale at the O2, and had experienced a Major semi-final last year.

Now he was after his first Major final, and he too was confident:

“It’s a dream, of course… I expected since a young age to potentially triumph at these Grand Slams. I’m happy that I’m able to be in a position where I am today. It’s very, very satisfying. I think I can learn from the previous semi-final in Australia. I’m chasing something spectacular.”

What has particularly impressed this fortnight are his mental and physical resilience. He arrived in Paris after the main draw had actually begun due to his final showdown in Hamburg against Andrey Rublev. He lost that three-set marathon, but two days later, won a gutsy five-setter to reach Round 2 in Paris, and has not looked back—even beating Rublev in straights in the quarters.

But Djokovic continues to have incentives aplenty as he closes on—and in some cases overtakes—his biggest rivals Nadal and Federer in multiple Major categories. His progress has been relentless in this disrupted year, with titles at the ATP Cup, the Australian Open, Dubai and at both the Cincinnati and Rome Masters. And even neck and shoulder issues did not prevent him coming back from his only dropped set in Paris to beat No17 seed Pablo Carreno Busta in the quarters.

Like Nadal, the Serb faced break points in his opening game of the match, but Tsitsipas could not capitalize and was instead broken himself, and 0-3 down. He did not get another chance to break and was soon a set down, 6-3.

Tsitsipas pressed hard to break early in the second set, but again could not take his chances in the second game: Eight minutes, and Djokovic levelled, 1-1. And a couple of games later, the clinical Serb took his own chance, 3-2. Tsitsipas was clearly starting to feel the pace of the best tennis Djokovic had produced this tournament. And he felt it more keenly still after another break, consolidated by a love hold from Djokovic, 6-2.

Djokovic looked set to win in three sets when he broke to serve at 5-4 in the third, and did indeed work match point, but Tsitsipas played bold and aggressive tennis to delay his exit, finally breaking at the 11th attempt. And with that boost, he served to take the lead and broke again with some stunning play. It earned the set, 7-5, but he looked flushed and exhausted.

Yet the Greek maintained his momentum to hold a tough opening game in the fourth, and then broke the world No1 to love. He was brought back to earth with a bump by a break back, and run into the ground by the tactical smartness and accuracy of Djokovic. The Greek survived break point for 5-4, and then enjoyed a couple of rare errors from Djokovic to work break and set point. The Serb netted a backhand: 6-4 and all square.

But now Tsitsipas looked weary in the face of such unrelenting quality from Djokovic, and after holding the first game, was broken three times by the world’s best, 6-1. It had been a test of the highest order, almost four hours of it, but Djokovic was into his fifth Roland Garros final.

So after all the ups and downs, upsets and unexpected runs, it will be the same two men who have contested so many of the biggest titles in the last decade and more. On Sunday, they will meet for a 56th time, with Djokovic owning a three-win advantage. But as the Serb said:

“Of course I have lot of motivation to win on Sunday but this is the house of Rafa because he has won so many times here. I will need to play my best tennis because it is probably the highest challenge, to play Rafa on clay at Roland Garros.”

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