Nadal moved a win away from landing yet another title at Roland Garros and joining Roger Federer atop the men’s grand slam leaderboard after beating Diego Schwartzman 6-3 6-3 7-6 (0) in Friday’s semifinal in Paris despite a slight, late wobble.
Schwartzman handed his pal a rare defeat on clay last month at the Italian Open — Nadal’s lone buildup tournament in this reshuffled tennis season due to the coronavirus pandemic — but the Spaniard once again proved that the best-of-five set format is a different beast.
He also spent time working on his clay court game following the straight-set reverse in Rome.
Nadal meets Novak Djokovic or Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday looking for his 100th French Open win.
More importantly, he would tie Federer on 20 majors by prevailing.
The stakes wouldn’t get much higher.
“I lost to him in Rome so I expected a very tough match,” Nadal said in his on court interview.
“Happy with the way I played. I think I’ve been improving and today has been a very positive match for me.”
Besides topping him in the Italian capital, Schwartzman handed Nadal, who has yet to concede a set this tournament, his toughest encounter en route to winning the 2018 crown in Paris. He led Nadal by a set and break two years ago before an unsurprising rally from the now-34-year-old, aided by a rain delay.
Despite dropping his racket in the first set, hitting a backhand that bounced a couple of yards in front of him and shaking his head when mishitting another backhand, Nadal found his best tennis of the fortnight on Friday when one considers his challenger.
The sun and shadows of the fall added another dimension. Nadal appeared to struggle early when facing the sun, yet Schwartzman was still largely left powerless.
Break point chances
Schwartzman will rue his break point tally: he went three for 12 to Nadal’s six of nine.
The Argentine — who will move inside the top 10 for the first time after making a maiden grand slam semifinal — said he would feel fine physically after outlasting recent US Open champion Dominic Thiem in five hours on Tuesday.
Maybe he wasn’t as fresh as he anticipated. Or maybe he was.
The final score suggested a mostly routine win but in the all important first set that lasted a marathon 64 minutes, Schwartzman made the worst possible start.
He couldn’t capitalize on two break points in a 13-minute opening game, then was broken from 30-0 to trail 2-0.
Schwartzman got back on serve temporarily but was broken straight away for 1-3.
Realistically, when he dropped the first set, his chances of becoming only the third man to beat Nadal at Roland Garros in the last 15 years plummeted.
Shot of the day
Schwartzman might take comfort from the fact that he hit the shot of the day, though.
With Nadal serving at 3-2, 0-15 in the second, he scampered to retrieve a blasted forehand before his forehand from the baseline zoomed past his onrushing opponent.
How did Nadal respond? By winning the next four points.
Nadal was now cruising yet suffered a pair of blips, letting slip break leads twice in the third with some unfamiliar misses.
He saved three break points with winners at 5-5 and stormed to the tiebreak, raising his arms in celebration when Schwartzman netted a backhand.