Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev had taken more than three hours to get toward the end of a second set. Then Zverev twisted his right ankle and had to stop.
PARIS — Sweat dripping off their faces as the grueling rallies piled up, Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev played for more than three hours in the Paris humidity and appeared set, whether they liked it or not, to play for hours more.
Égalité, the French word for deuce, began to sound more like a mantra than the score as the chair umpire kept repeating it, game after close game.
But then suddenly, this French Open semifinal, which looked ready to run and run, came to an abrupt and painful halt as Zverev, the tall and lanky German star, rolled his right ankle chasing a Nadal forehand late in the second set.
Zverev screamed, released his racket and tumbled to the red clay. Nadal who had just won the point, quickly stopped pumping his fist and crossed to Zverev’s side of the net and stood nearby. He was somber as Zverev was helped to his feet and carted off the Philippe Chatrier Court in a wheelchair in tears for treatment and examination.
It was tough to observe and surely much tougher to experience for a 25-year-old man like Zverev who was within range of his first Grand Slam title and the No. 1 ranking.
Several minutes later, he reappeared on crutches, his right foot bare and his eyes red from crying, with Nadal walking by his side, to inform the chair umpire that he was retiring with Nadal leading, 7-6 (8), 6-6.
Nadal, already a 13-time French Open champion, is back in the final at Roland Garros, which has come to feel like a Parisian rite of spring. But this was certainly not the way he wanted to celebrate victory on his 36th birthday.
“Of course, for me, as everybody knows, being in the final of Roland Garros one more time is a dream without a doubt,” Nadal said in his on-court interview. “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, and to see him crying there is a very tough moment. So just all the best to him and all the team.”
Nadal, who first won the French Open at 19 in 2005, is now the oldest men’s singles finalist at Roland Garros since Bill Tilden in 1930. Nadal could become the oldest man ever to win the title if he defeats the No. 8 seed, Casper Ruud, on Sunday.
Ruud, 23, became the first Norwegian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final with a victory, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, over No. 20 Marin Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion who has been resurgent in Paris at age 33.
The match was interrupted for about 15 minutes when a young protester attached herself to the net during the sixth game of the third set. In a statement, the French Tennis Federation said that “the security team needed to formally identify the objects she used to get onto the court before they could remove her.”
Both players left the court, but when they returned, Ruud, the more natural clay-court master, maintained control as Cilic’s unforced-error count kept climbing.
It will be the first meeting on tour for Ruud and Nadal, but they know each other well. Ruud has trained regularly at Nadal’s academy in Mallorca for several years, and Nadal has been his inspiration for his skill, sportsmanship and combative spirit.
“He’s been my idol for all my life,” said Ruud, who has played numerous practice sets with Nadal.
Asked how many of Nadal’s 13 French Open finals he had watched, he replied, “probably all of them,” reeling off the names of most of his opponents.
Ruud, whose father and coach, Christian, is a former professional player, had not been past the fourth round in a Grand Slam tournament until now. He rose into the top 10 last year for the first time on the strength of his victories in regular tour events.
But he took full advantage of his spot in the more welcoming bottom half of the men’s draw in this French Open and now will try to do what no man has ever managed defeat Nadal in a French Open final.
“It might sound like an impossible task. But of course I will give it a shot like the other 13 people before me,” Ruud said. “We all know what a great champion he is and how well he plays in the biggest moments and the biggest matches. I’m just going to try to enjoy it. I will be the underdog, and I will try to tonight and tomorrow night dream about great winners and unbelievable rallies, because that’s what it’s going to take if I want to have any chance, and I will need to play my best tennis ever.”
Nadal managed to come through the gantlet in the top half, defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round in five sets and then ripping his forehand with vintage depth and precision in the quarterfinals to defeat his longtime rival Novak Djokovic.
The third-seeded Zverev, who had played some of his finest and gutsiest tennis in a quarterfinal victory over the Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz, was another big hurdle, all the more so under a closed center-court roof that traps the humidity — call it the greenhouse effect — on a rainy day like Friday.
The heavy conditions keep Nadal’s extreme topspin from kicking quite so high off the clay, but he adapted by using slices and drop shots to bring Zverev forward out of his comfort zone.
“Lots of people think incorrectly that slow conditions are better for clay-court specialists,” Nadal said. “But it’s quite the contrary. Slower conditions and heavier balls favor the guy who hits it flatter with the more direct strokes..”
The lack of wind under cover also helps a powerful server like Zverev. At 6-foot-6, he has one of the best first serves in the game (the second one is quite a bit shakier), and he had beaten Nadal in three of their four previous encounters, two of them indoors.
But Zverev, for all his evident talent and his Olympic gold medal from Tokyo last year, has yet to beat Nadal or the other members of the Big Three — Djokovic and Roger Federer — in a Grand Slam tournament in which singles matches are best-of-five sets instead of best-of-three.
“He started the match playing amazing,” Nadal said. “I know how much it means to him, to fight to win his first Grand Slam.”
The first set was one of the closest and longest imaginable in the tiebreaker format, lasting 91 minutes with breaks of serve and extended rallies the rule. Nadal was dripping sweat after just a few games, and the set would have ended much more quickly if Zverev had been able to convert more of the big opportunities he created with his serving and phenomenal two-handed backhand that Nadal termed “probably the best in the game.” (Others would surely still vote for Djokovic’s two-hander.)
But Zverev’s finishing skills, particularly in the forecourt and at the net, are still hit or miss. Serving at 4-3 and up a break, Zverev moved forward to put away a short forehand and clubbed it wide as his racket slipped out of his hand to face a break point, which he lost by missing another short ball.
It was a big opportunity squandered and hardly the last. Up 6-2 in the tiebreaker, Zverev failed to convert four set points as Nadal rallied and closed out the set on his sixth set point with a fast-twitch forehand passing shot winner down the line that left even Nadal standing statue-still for a moment in surprise. The shot also left a few spectators, most of whom were Nadalites on Friday, with both hands on their heads in disbelief.
It was a big finish to an up-and-down set, and to Zverev’s credit, he got right back to work and to pushing Nadal to his considerable limits from the baseline. One exchange in the third game of the second set lasted 44 strokes before Zverev cracked. After just over three hours of play, Zverev was on the cusp of another tiebreaker, but there would be no more tennis in this match after his injury.
It remains unclear how badly injured Zverev is or how long he will be out of the game: Wimbledon begins in little more than three weeks. But there is no doubt what comes next for Nadal: a chance at No. 14 against a Norwegian of all things.
Endure long enough and all sorts of surprises await.
Source: Tennis - nytimes.com