Rafael Nadal is a French Open finalist for the 14th time in his career as a dramatic, lengthy and messy semi-final ended with Alexander Zverev being forced to retire in the second set after badly twisting his ankle while chasing a ball and being taken off the court in a wheelchair.
After competing for over three hours yet not even managing to complete two sets, Nadal won 7-6(8), 6-6 ret. to advance to the final.
Nadal, who turned 36 on Friday, will now play for a record-extending 14th French Open title and 22nd major title, his French Open win-loss record is now 111-3 (97%). After his triumph at the Australian Open, he will attempt to win the first two major tournaments of the year and move halfway to the grand slam.
“Very tough, no?” said Nadal after Zverev’s retirement. “And very sad for him, honestly, he was playing an unbelievable tournament. He’s a very good colleague on the tour. I know how much he’s fighting to win a grand slam but for the moment he was very unlucky.
“The only thing I’m sure of is that he is going to win not one, much more than one, so I wish him all the very best.”
As rain fell around Paris and the new Roland Garros roof was used for the first match of real consequence this year, the indoor conditions were advantageous for Zverev, removing the elements from the equation.
With the humidity under the roof, Nadal was sweating profusely by the second game and while Zverev stepped inside the baseline and effectively hit through the conditions, Nadal’s topspin was blunted and he struggled to impose himself on his opponent.
It began with an almighty 92 minute opening set, the length of a whole football match, which produced both moments of greatness and horrors alike.
For much of the first set, Zverev was on fire. He started the match serving almost perfectly, crashing down first serves while landing well over 80% of them demolishing the ball from inside the baseline as Nadal was reduced to a spectator.
As the eighth game began and the stakes rose, though, his familiar struggles with his second serve and forehand surfaced.
He lost his serve but then rebounded to lead 6-2 in the tiebreak. Against almost anyone else the set would have been over, but instead Nadal saved all four set points. After Zverev badly missed an easy volley at 3-6, Nadal pulled off an outrageous angled forehand passing shot winner on the following point. Even as Nadal continued to struggle with his game, he rose to rob the set from Zverev with a thunderous forehand down-the-line passing shot winner.
Nadal broke serve at the beginning of the second set, suddenly on top of the baseline himself. But as in his five-set fourth round match against Felix Auger-Aliassime, when he spurned the momentum while leading by two sets to one, he threw in a series of dire service games. What followed was a messy, low-quality set that was at times hard to watch.
The Spaniard struggled from the baseline, relying heavily on his drop shot in lieu of any potent groundstrokes, and Zverev twice double faulted on break points, including three double faults in a game while serving at 5-3. By 5-4 to Zverev, eight of the first nine games of set two had been service breaks.
As the pair were heading for a tiebreak and Nadal attacked at game point on his serve, Zverev chased down a forehand and badly twisted his right ankle.
He immediately began screaming out in agony and he was promptly escorted out of the court on a wheelchair, a rare sequence that immediately underlined the severity of his injury. After a short time, and as Nadal also went off court, Zverev returned to the court on crutches and saluted the crowd while his retirement was confirmed.
Despite reaching the final, Nadal will not be satisfied with his game after keeping himself ahead solely on his endless fighting spirit and clutch play. However, in his on-court interview, a solemn Nadal made it clear that his performance was not important in that moment: “It has been a super tough match, over three hours and we even didn’t finish the second set,” he said. “So it’s one of the biggest challenges on the tour today when he’s playing at this super high level when to play against him.”
He continued: “Difficult to say a lot of things today in this situation. Of course, for me, as everybody knows, to be in the final of Roland Garros one more time is a dream, without a doubt. But at the same time, to finish that way … I have been there in the small room with Sascha before we came back on court. To see him crying there, it’s a very tough moment so all the best to him.”