PARIS — It is another warm, beautiful night in Paris with temperatures in the high 70s, ideal outdoor café weather.
It is also considered Rafael Nadal weather, creating fast, high-bouncing conditions that make his whipping forehand all the harder to handle.
But the truth is that Nadal has won in all manner of conditions at the French Open, including last year when the tournament was postponed until late September and early October because of the pandemic. It was often cold and clammy and yet Nadal produced some of his finest tennis when it mattered most: routing Djokovic in straight sets in the autumnal final.
“As long as there is red clay on the court, conditions are good at Roland Garros for Rafael Nadal,” Jim Courier, the former French Open champion, said last week.
PARIS — Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 22-year-old rising star from Greece, will play in his first Grand Slam final Sunday.
Tsitsipas survived five-sets of testosterone-fueled tennis Friday, staving off a stirring comeback from Alexander Zverev of Germany Friday, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 in the first men’s semifinal. He will play the winner of the heavyweight matchup between Rafael Nadal, the 13-time French Open champion, and Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1.
Tsitsipas, a passionate player and person who makes films in his spare time, fought back tears in an interview on the court after the match.
“All I can think of is my roots where I came from a small place outside Athens, my dream was to play here,” he said.
He is the first Greek player to make a Grand Slam final.
Tsitsipas has now beaten two players ranked in the top six to reach the final and has dropped just a single set in six matches.
Tsitsipas was in control from the beginning of match, breaking Zverev in his first service game and cruising for an early lead. Zverev, 24, a lanky and powerful player who has made the semifinal round in four of the past five Grand Slams, stepped up in the second set, surging to a 3-1 lead, only for Tsitsipas to raise his game even higher.
With Zverev searching for tight angles, Tsitsipas chased down every shot. And when he reached the balls, he showed off every ounce of creativity.
He has the power to exert intense pressure on an opponent, a sneaky backhand drop shot, and at 6-foot-4, an intimidating net game. Exerting all three at once, he reeled off five straight games to take the second set as Zverev got sloppy, spraying his strokes wide and long.
Tsitsipas tearing up: “All I can think of is my roots, where I came from. I came from a really small place outside Athens. My dream was to play here. My dream was to play in a big stadium at the French Open one day. I would never have thought that I could.”
Stefanos Tsitsipas defeats Alexander Zverev in the other men’s singles semifinal.
Tsitsipas won 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3.
Key game of the match: Tsitsipas rallying from 0-40 to hold in the opening game of the fifth set. Righted his ship.
Four match points saved by Zverev: two with huge first serves and one, the gutsiest, with an exquisite drop shot.
PARIS — Consensus is elusive on many a topic, but in an informal poll I conducted over the last 24 hours, there was plenty of consensus on a tennis question.
What’s the best match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic?
Lots of responses and frankly lots of agreement. Number one, clearly, was the 2012 Australian Open final, which had fluctuating quality but unassailable quantity at 5 hours and 53 minutes. It left both men struggling to stand at the awards ceremony even if Djokovic had the requisite energy to rip his shirt from his body after closing out the 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 7-5 victory at Melbourne Park.
It was the longest Grand Slam singles final in recorded history. Matches were not routinely timed in the sport’s earlier days, but it is difficult to imagine any went longer considering how long Nadal and Djokovic take between serves and how short the changes of ends were before the advent of television coverage.
“It was obvious on the court for everybody who has watched the match that both of us, physically, we took the last drop of energy that we had from our bodies,” Djokovic said. “I think it was just the matter of maybe luck in some moments and a matter of you know wanting this more than maybe the other player in the certain point.”
It was their first five-setter against each other, and Djokovic actually collapsed to the court late in that set after missing a backhand to end a 31-stroke rally. “That’s the first knockdown I’ve ever seen in tennis,” said Jim Courier, who was commenting on the match for Australian television.
Fans also forget that the match finished indoors after rain forced the retractable roof in Rod Laver Arena to close at 4-4 in the fourth set. It ended at 1:37 a.m. and Djokovic later saw the sun rise at his hotel before finally going to sleep, but not before watching the highlights of his victory.
Nadal, presumably, was less eager to relive the moment, but he did have perspective.
“I lost a match, but it was perhaps the final that I lost that hurts the least, because I did all I could,” Nadal said. “I fought with everything I had.”
Career five-set records: Tsitsipas: 5-4, Zverev: 16-7.
Fabrice Santoro, the former French star doing commentary for British network ITV, is already getting concerned about tonight’s 11 p.m. curfew in Paris for spectators. Nadal vs Djokovic is still far from starting, and they play at a famously measured pace. “What is the worst case for the tournament today?” Santoro asks. “The worst case is to ask people to leave the Court Philippe Chatrier tonight at 10:45 p.m. when Rafa and Novak start the fifth set.”
Both Djokovic and Nadal were heavily favored to reach the semifinals, and did so without much drama.
In the fourth round, Djokovic played an uncharacteristic first two sets against Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti, losing both in tiebreakers. But he reverted to form for the remainder of the match, until Musetti threw in the towel down 6-7 (7), 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0 after long stretches where he was barely winning points.
Both Djokovic and Nadal dropped a set in their quarterfinal match, with Djokovic dropping the third set in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 win over the ninth-seeded Matteo Berrettini, while Nadal dropped the second set in his 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 win over the 10th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, ending a streak of 36 consecutive sets won by Nadal.
The one area where Djokovic has a considerable advantage over Nadal statistically during this tournament is serving: Djokovic has landed 68 percent of his first serves, compared with 62 percent for Nadal, and has been broken only three times in 81 service games through five matches, compared with 11 of 74 service games dropped by Nadal.
It’s nearing 5:30 p.m. in Paris and Zverev and Tsitsipas are early in their fourth set. Nadal and Djokovic are scheduled to follow. If anyone thinks that Wednesday night was the French Open’s last night session, they are dreaming. It was only the last “official” night session.
Nadal remains a prohibitive favorite at Roland Garros, but because his world ranking slipped to third, he drew the top-ranked Djokovic in the semifinals, a round earlier than would normally be expected of the two greats.
While what comes next may feel anticlimactic, the winner of this match will need to win one more to get his hands on the Coupe des Mousquetaires. No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev, facing off in the first semifinal on Friday, are each looking to reach his first French Open final.
While either Djokovic or Nadal will be considerable favorites, neither Tsitsipas nor Zverev should be overlooked. Both won titles in the run up to the French Open, with Tsitsipas triumphing in Monte Carlo and Zverev winning in Madrid, where he scored a third straight victory over Nadal. Tsitsipas, similarly, beat Nadal on the clay of Madrid in 2019, and lost to him in a competitive three-set final this year in Barcelona.
Currently tied with Roger Federer at 20, Nadal is two match wins from moving into first place in Grand Slam men’s singles titles.
Federer equaled the previous record-holder, Pete Sampras, when he won his 14th Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2009, and moved into sole possession of the record when he won his 15th a month later at Wimbledon. He was joined by Nadal at 20 apiece when Nadal won last year’s French Open.
Djokovic also has designs on the record, however. He currently has 18 Grand Slam titles, and could reach 21 this year if he wins in Paris, as well as Wimbledon and the United States Open. Djokovic is less than a year older than Nadal, but his ability to contend on both grass and hard courts likely increases his chances of finishing on top when all is said and done.
Federer, of course, isn’t necessarily done either: he pulled out of the French Open after his third round win so he could better on the grass court swing, where he could claim his own 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon next month.
Though there is still much to play for, one thing seems certain: Sampras will occupy an increasingly distant fourth place, and all three men have a ways to go before they equal Serena Williams’s Open era record of 23 titles.
Djokovic leads their head-to-head meetings by a racket string, 29-28. But Nadal can be heartened by his decisive advantage on his preferred clay courts, where he has a 19-7 edge.
Nadal won their last two meetings, both of which were on clay. Nadal prevailed 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 last month in the final of the Italian Open, and romped past Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in a lopsided French Open final last October.
Djokovic, who has won 10 matches in a row against Nadal away from the clay courts, can take some solace in being the last man to have defeated Nadal at the French Open, handing him a decisive 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 loss in the 2015 quarterfinals.
Along with a 2009 fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling, that 2015 defeat stands as one of only two blemishes in Nadal’s otherwise sparkling 105-2 record at Roland Garros. Nadal is undefeated, 26-0, in the final two rounds of the French Open.