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    Nadal Advances to French Open Semifinals After Defeating Djokovic

    PARIS — For a man who did not want to play Novak Djokovic at night, Rafael Nadal certainly made the best of the situation.Whatever the hour and whatever the surface, Nadal remains one of the supreme fighters and problem solvers in sports. Though Nadal did not have the clout as a 13-time French Open champion to influence the scheduling, he did have the skill and the will to hold off the only man who has beaten him twice at Roland Garros.Nadal, who will turn 36 on Friday, was irresistible at the start of his latest marathon with Djokovic and sometimes shaky in the middle, but he found a way well after midnight to save two set points down the stretch and cross the finish line in first with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory.“Novak is one of the best players of the history without a doubt,” Nadal said. “Playing him is always an amazing challenge, all the history we have together. Today was another one. To win against Novak there is only one way to play, at your best and first point to the last, and tonight was one of those magic nights for me.”This four-hour-and-12-minute triumph did not secure Nadal the trophy. It was only a quarterfinal on a chilly Tuesday evening when scarves were definitely in order on the Philippe Chatrier Court (some fans chose to wrap their entire bodies in Spanish or Serbian flags).But the victory — completed at 1:15 a.m. local time Wednesday — did provide Nadal with the sort of buzz and satisfaction that validates his decision to keep pushing the limits at this late stage of his career and also protected his lead in the race to finish with the most men’s Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal took hold of the record by winning his 21st major title at the Australian Open in January, breaking his tie with his longtime rivals Djokovic and Roger Federer, who both have won 20.Not that Nadal is obsessing over the race.“There is always a conversation about the player who will finish with more Slams or who is the best of the history, but from my perspective it doesn’t matter that much,” he said. “We achieved our dreams.”That is certainly true for Nadal at Roland Garros, where he has succeeded far beyond even his own imaginings. There was a time, early in his long period of dominance in Paris, when he was no crowd favorite at Roland Garros. The fans traditionally cheer for the underdog and long cheered for Federer most loudly of all when it came to the Big Three players who have ruled the men’s game for most of the last 20 years. But the mood has shifted in recent seasons. There is now a statue of Nadal near the entrance of the stadium complex, and throughout Tuesday evening there were chants of “Rafa” even as Djokovic prepared to serve at critical phases. “I think probably they know that I am not going to be here a lot more times,” Nadal said.It was Djokovic who did not get the chance to play in this year’s Australian Open. He was deported on the eve of the competition after a standoff with the Australian government over his being unvaccinated against Covid-19. But he arrived in Paris and at Tuesday’s match in more convincing form than Nadal, who is without a doubt the greatest men’s clay-court player in history but was very short on matches on the surface this year.“Yes, I was surprised by my level tonight,” Nadal said. “But in a way it makes it simpler when you know that you either need your A game or you’re going home.”Nadal injured his ribs at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March, losing the final to the American Taylor Fritz while playing with a stress fracture. He missed most of the early clay-court season and only returned for the Madrid Open in mid-May, when he was upset by his 19-year-old Spaniard compatriot, Carlos Alcaraz, in the quarterfinals.Then came the Italian Open, his only other clay-court event before Roland Garros, where Nadal was beaten in three sets by Denis Shapovalov of Canada in a round-of-16 night match in Rome in which he hobbled to the finish, grimacing in pain as his chronic left foot condition resurfaced. He was downbeat after that defeat but did not rule out playing in the French Open and arrived in Paris seeded fifth and, unlike in Rome, with his longtime physician, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro.“Having the doctor here you can do things that help,” said Nadal, declining to go into detail on his treatment while continuing to suggest that this could be his final appearance at Roland Garros. “I am putting everything that I have to try to play this tournament with the best conditions possible, no? I don’t know what can happen after, honestly, but here I think I am going to be fine.”As so often, Nadal has proved able to play and prevail through the pain. He fought to a five-set victory in the fourth round over the 21-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, then took on the top-seeded Djokovic for the 59th time on tour and the 10th time at Roland Garros. “I’m not surprised at all,” Djokovic said after the match. “It’s not the first time that he, you know, is able to a few days after he’s injured and barely walking to come out 100 percent physically fit. You know, he’s done it many times in his career, so I’m not surprised.”Last year, in another stirring night match, Djokovic defeated Nadal in four sets on his way to winning the title. Nadal faded in the final set due to Djokovic’s staying power but also to the foot condition — Müller-Weiss syndrome — that would keep him from playing for most of what remained of the 2021 season.But in this French Open rematch, Nadal was strong at the start and at the finish in a grueling duel with an average rally length well over five strokes. Nadal finished with 57 winners to 43 unforced errors and did a much better job than Djokovic of protecting his second serve: winning 60 percent of the points on it while Djokovic won just 42 percent on his. Still, Djokovic served for the fourth set at 5-4 and was twice only one point away from forcing decisive fifth. But on the first set point, Djokovic lost an extended rally by hitting a backhand into the net. On the second, he decided to be more aggressive but his approach shot was more hopeful than good and Nadal ran to his right and smacked a backhand passing shot winner that Djokovic was never close to reaching.It was soon 5-5 in the fourth set and Nadal took quick control of the ensuing tiebreaker, just as he had taken quick command of the match. He jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the tiebreaker and then held on and closed out the victory on his fourth match point with another backhand winner, turning to his team and raising both his arms.“Congratulations to Nadal, he was the best player in the important moments,” Djokovic said. “I managed to win the second set and thought I was back in the game, but then he had another two or three fantastic games again at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level.” Djokovic still leads their overall series 30-29 — a statistic that reflects the transcendence of their rivalry — but Nadal has now extended his lead over Djokovic in French Open matches to 8-2 and will face Alexander Zverev, a German seeded third, on Friday for a place in the men’s singles final.Nadal is the only man left in the tournament who has won the French Open, and though Tuesday night’s performance might have come as a surprise to Nadal and those who saw him hobbling in Rome, it would surely come as no surprise to anyone if Nadal took the confidence and momentum that goes with defeating Djokovic and rode it to a 14th title at Roland Garros. More

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    Alexander Zverev Beats Carlos Alcaraz at the French Open

    PARIS — Alexander Zverev, the No. 3 seed, returned to the semifinals of the French Open with a 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7) victory over Carlos Alcaraz on Tuesday, ending the Spanish 19-year-old’s stirring run at Roland Garros.Zverev, a 25-year-old German, also snuffed out Alcaraz’s rousing comeback in this quarterfinal. Zverev, beaten by Alcaraz in the Madrid Open final ahead of the French Open, was the more consistent and convincing player for nearly three sets. “I think letting him go ahead in the match and letting him get the confidence was going to be a very difficult thing for me to come back from,” Zverev said.But Alcaraz, on the brink of being quickly eliminated, did lift his game. As usual, that was quite a sight, as he produced delicate drop shots, audacious returns, reflexive volleys and full-cut forehand winners that left the 6-foot-6 Zverev staring wistfully at the ball marks on the red clay court.Alcaraz, like the top-seeded Novak Djokovic, is half tennis player, half gymnast. And with a flurry of brilliant and acrobatic tennis, Alcaraz, the No. 6 seed, took the third set. With another surge late in the fourth set, he broke Zverev’s serve when he was serving for the match at 5-4. This all-court duel, by this stage, was well worthy of a tiebreaker, and both men produced excellence under duress yet also cracked.Alcaraz had a set point at 6-5 in the tiebreaker and failed to convert it when he made an unforced error with his backhand into the top of the net. Zverev missed a backhand of his own on his first match point during the tiebreaker.It was now 7-7 and the chants of “Carlos, Carlos” were only getting louder. But Zverev, with the crowd and the flow against him, steeled himself, winning the next two points to close out the match. He finished off the victory with a bold backhand return winner down the line that Alcaraz, one of the quickest men in tennis, could not come close to reaching.“It is one shot I like, it’s true,” Zverev said, grinning throughout his post-match news conference, which he started by raising both his arms in triumph.“I’ve done it a lot in my career,” he said of his backhand return winner. “But I had to win the match myself, I felt I was going to either miss it by a country mile or hit a winner, and I hit a winner, which I’m quite pleased about.”Alcaraz, in the midst of a breakthrough season, has still played in only four Grand Slam tournaments.“I leave the court, leave the tournament with the head very high,” he said. “I fight until the last ball. I fought until the last second of the match, and I’m proud of it.”But the best-of-five-set format remains another type of challenge than the best-of-three-set variety played on the regular tour. For now, Alcaraz’s best results in the majors are quarterfinal runs at the U.S. Open last year and now in Paris.“I didn’t start well, and in this level, quarterfinal of a Grand Slam, you are playing against the best players in the world, so you have to start the match better than I did today,” Alcaraz said. “I have to take the lesson. I mean, I have to improve to the next Grand Slam or next matches. But I would say I’m not far away to reach a semifinal or be able to win a Grand Slam.”Zverev, a semifinalist at Roland Garros last year, clearly felt the odds were against him on Tuesday in light of Alcaraz’s recent results. Alcaraz had won the Barcelona and Madrid titles back-to-back on red clay and resumed rolling at Roland Garros after saving a match point against his Spanish compatriot Albert Ramos-Viñolas in the second round.“I knew I had to play my absolutely best tennis today from the start, and I’m happy I did that,” Zverev said. “Obviously he kept on coming back. He’s an incredible player. I told him at the net, he’s going to win this tournament a lot of times, not only once, and I just hope I can win it before he starts beating us all, and we’ll have no chance at all.”Zverev, despite his fine performance (and evident relief) on Tuesday, is still a long way from winning his first Grand Slam singles title. In the semifinals, he will face the winner of Tuesday’s second match: a night session between Djokovic and the fifth-seeded Rafael Nadal, who has won the French Open a record 13 times.“It’s not really getting easier from here,” said Zverev, still looking delighted. “But I said a lot of times, I’m not 20 or 21 years old anymore; I’m 25. I am at the stage where I want to win, I’m at the stage where I’m supposed to win, as well.” More

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    Coco Gauff Advances to French Open Semifinals

    After graduating from online high school, Coco Gauff is in a new phase of her tennis career, and she is marking the occasion at the French Open in her favorite city.She has long had precocious power and speed, which she underscored by reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon at age 15. Three years later, she is playing with less exuberance and more patience. And on Tuesday, on the same Philippe Chatrier Court where she lost her cool a year ago amid errors and clear frustration, she kept it together impressively, defeating Sloane Stephens, 7-5, 6-2, to reach her first Grand Slam singles semifinal.Gauff, 18 and seeded No. 18, will face Martina Trevisan, an unseeded Italian, who will also be playing in her first major semifinal. Trevisan defeated 17th-seeded Leylah Fernandez, 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-3, on Tuesday.“I feel so happy right now; words cannot explain,” Gauff said in her on-court interview. “Last year in the quarterfinals was a tough loss for me, and I think that match really made me stronger, to better prepare for moments like today and the moments I will face in the next round.”A year ago, Gauff faced Barbora Krejcikova, a then-unseeded doubles specialist, in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and lost, 7-6 (6), 6-3. She failed to convert five set points in the opening set, made unforced errors by the bunch and uncharacteristically destroyed her racket with three angry blows to the red clay as she fell behind in the second set.Krejcikova went on to win the title, and Gauff had to work through her regrets: trying to separate the player from the person, an approach she shared with the crowd after her victory over Stephens.“I believe in myself, but I think when I was young, like even last year, I was kind of too focused on trying to fulfill other people’s expectations,” she said. “I think you should just enjoy life. I know no matter how good or bad my career is, I think I’m a great person.”Gauff, who is from Delray Beach, Fla., has long been identified as a potential superstar, and with good reason. At 13, she was the youngest U.S. Open girls’ singles finalist in history. She won the French Open girls’ title at age 14, a year before her breakthrough run in 2019 as a qualifier at Wimbledon, where she defeated one of her role models, Venus Williams, in her first main-draw match at the All England Club.Unlike some teen prodigies, Gauff did not soar to the top of women’s tennis in a hurry. Her progress has not been linear, but she is in new territory now in the final four of the French Open on a gritty surface that perhaps suits her best.She can extend points like few players in the game with her quickness and defensive skills, and can also finish them with her terrific two-handed backhand and increasingly with her forehand, long her weaker wing. She was far from perfect against Stephens, making 18 winners to 23 unforced errors, including six double faults. But she played the critical points better, rarely going for a winner from a compromised position. Instead, she patiently worked her way to the opening while the unseeded Stephens struggled to maintain her consistency, mixing forehand winners with untimely mistakes and several gaffes at the net.Stephens, a former U.S. Open champion, has had great success on clay, reaching the French Open final in 2018, where she lost to Simona Halep. But she had not won a clay-court match this season before arriving unseeded at Roland Garros.“I would have liked to play better today, but that doesn’t take anything away from the work she has put in obviously to reach this point,” Stephens said of Gauff.Stephens, 29, is now based in the Boston area, but she was long based in South Florida, like Gauff and her family, and knew them well enough to attend Gauff’s 10th birthday party. She has long been a role model for Gauff, and she defeated her in the second round of the U.S. Open last year in their only previous meeting on tour.“I’m glad today was different,” Gauff said. “Honestly, I just told myself to stay mentally there. I knew there were some shots I probably should have made and some shots she gets in the court that probably no other player gets in the court.” More

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    Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic Meet at French Open Quarterfinals

    Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will play in a quarterfinal at the French Open on Tuesday night, their 59th career meeting and 10th at Roland Garros.PARIS — The rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic began in the quarterfinals of the French Open.Sixteen years later, it just might end in the quarterfinals of the French Open.“We have to be ready that this could be the last time they play in a Grand Slam,” said Mats Wilander, 57, a three-time French Open men’s singles champion. “I think we have to cherish this moment and not get ahead of ourselves.”No one has prospered by underestimating either player’s resilience or powers of recuperation. But the future seems particularly uncertain in light of Nadal’s chronic foot condition that is now flaring up with alarming regularity and, by his own admission, sapping some of his trademark enthusiasm for the struggle.Nadal vs. Djokovic has been, undoubtedly, one of the best and closest extended tussles in sports: with ebbs and flows in confidence and dominance in matches across four continents and, unlike with Nadal’s less prolific rivalry with Federer, at all four of the Grand Slam tournaments.Nadal and Djokovic, both 35 until Nadal’s birthday on Thursday, once shared a closer connection and even a publicist, but whatever their disagreements now on Covid-19 vaccination or tennis politics, they will always be connected as part of the triangle that has defined men’s tennis since the late 2000s, when Djokovic rose to meet the bar set by Nadal and Federer.But Tuesday’s quarterfinal, which will be played at night at Roland Garros despite Nadal’s lobbying for the day session, comes at an intriguing moment on multiple levels.For the first time, a group of much younger players who look like a legitimate collective threat has emerged: a Generation Z cohort all 21 years old or younger. It is led with panache by Carlos Alcaraz of Spain and includes the Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, who pushed Nadal to five sets on Sunday, and Holger Rune, a potentially great Dane in a backward ball cap who knocked out Stefanos Tsitsipas, last year’s French Open runner-up, with a bewitching brew of power and touch on Monday on the main court, Philippe Chatrier.Alcaraz and Rune are just 19 and in the quarterfinals, and though Nadal vs. Djokovic will take up plenty of air and head space between now and very late Tuesday night, there might be even more anticipation within the sport to see Nadal or Djokovic face Alcaraz in the next round than to watch Nadal and Djokovic play for a 59th time.The novelty factor is real, particularly after Alcaraz beat Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back on red clay on his way to winning the Madrid Open earlier this month.There are no shortage of dissenters, of course.“I’ll take No. 59,” said Julien Benneteau, the French former player who is now the country’s King Cup captain. “These guys are two monuments of tennis, along with Federer. I can’t wait to watch it again.”Novak Djokovic bested Nadal when they last played, in a French Open semifinal last year.Christophe Ena/Associated PressAlcaraz, full of flash and fire, is no lock to reach the semifinals, even if he will be favored against the No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev in a quarterfinal that will end the day session on the Chatrier Court before the main event occupies the red, rectangular stage.Nadal, a creature of habit, as his precisely aligned water bottles make plain, was clear after beating Auger-Aliassime that he wanted a day match. Night sessions are a new development at the modern French Open, introduced last year albeit with reduced capacity because of pandemic-related restrictions.Night sessions are a longtime staple of the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, the two Grand Slam tournaments played on hardcourts.There are also night sessions at other European clay-court events, including the Madrid Open and the Italian Open, which Nadal has still managed to win 10 times. But his night match this year in Rome against Denis Shapovalov did not end happily as Nadal lost in three sets, limping noticeably and grimacing as he struggled to finish the final set, casting doubt on his preparations for Roland Garros.Conditions can change considerably on clay after dark, particularly on a cool and relatively humid night when the balls get heavier and bounce lower: no boon to Nadal’s lively topspin forehand.“The match with Djokovic could be my last match here,” Nadal said on Sunday, sounding somber. “I know Roland Garros during the day and prefer to play during the day. I’ve gone through a complicated situation with my foot, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with my career. What I’m trying to do is enjoy and continue living the dream to play tennis and get to the final rounds of Roland Garros.” Despite that plea, the French Open organizers remained unconvinced or perhaps had contractual obligations to Amazon Prime Video, which holds the night-session rights in France.No. 59 will be a night match, just as the remarkable semifinal between the two at last year’s French Open turned into one after starting in the late afternoon.“Unfortunately, every year they play one round earlier here,” said Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach. “Two years ago it was the final. Last year it was the semis and now the quarters, but it’s probably the best quarterfinal ever in the history of the French Open.”Their two previous quarterfinal duels at Roland Garros were actually no great shakes. In the first in 2006, their first meeting at any level, Djokovic retired with an injury after losing the first two sets.In 2015, Djokovic, in peak form with Nadal in an extended slump, became only the second man to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, routing him 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 in what looked, incorrectly, like the end of an era for Nadal at the French Open. He has gone on to win it four more times.But he did not win it last year as Djokovic became the first man to beat Nadal twice at the French Open, prevailing 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in a match that’s intensity and shotmaking peaked in the third set before Nadal, struggling with his foot and Djokovic’s excellence, faded in the fourth.“Their third set last year was probably the best set of tennis I’ve seen,” said Darren Cahill, the retired player, longtime ESPN analyst and leading coach.They have not played since, but Djokovic comes into the quarterfinal with the momentum after reaching the semifinal in Madrid — losing a tight match to Alcaraz — and then finding a higher gear to win the Italian Open without dropping a set.“I think this year and 2015 are the two times when he is the clear favorite,” Nadal said of Djokovic. “The other times I was a bit more, or it was 50-50.”After being forced to miss the Australian Open because of his anti-vaccination stance and being deported on the eve of the tournament, Djokovic had to watch from afar — and with jet lag — as Nadal passed him in the men’s record books by winning his 21st Grand Slam tournament singles title.Djokovic, right, and Nadal are still both leading players at 35, but young players like Carlos Alcaraz, who beat both at the Madrid Open, are on the rise.Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesBut after returning to the tour full time in April and struggling with his endurance and his timing, he has gathered serious steam. Enough to handle a grinding, grueling five-setter with Nadal on the Spaniard’s signature surface?“Novak is ready for best-of-10,” Ivanisevic said. “It was not easy. Australia threw him back a little bit, but people like him, these genius people, have a different brain, and he needed a little bit of time.” He added: “So far he’s playing well, hitting the ball well, and he’s ready. Rafa is ready, so we see.”Nadal, lacking depth and percussive power at times against Auger-Aliassime, managed to find his most convincing tennis in the closing games.“Rafa is match toughened this year with having hit the wall many times and finding ways to win,” Cahill said. “Novak has only just started looking good and has coasted in Paris. He will feel his lungs popping out of his chest for maybe the first time this year.”Djokovic leads their overall series 30-28, but Nadal still leads 10-7 in Grand Slam matches and 19-8 on clay. This will be their 10th match at Roland Garros: more than any men have played each other at any tour-level event in the Open era.After facing off 58 times (and in a few more exhibition matches), there can be no secrets on court. Nadal knows that breaking down the elastic Djokovic from the baseline is one of the toughest asks in tennis. Djokovic knows that regaining control of a rally once Nadal has begun to dictate its terms with his whipping forehand is every bit as daunting.“Watch for Rafa’s forehand down the line,” Cahill said. “He will try and stretch Novak to that side as his defense on the backhand is crazy good.”They have never been the biggest servers and are no longer the biggest hitters, but they have grown into supremely complete players, increasingly prone to attacking or even serving and volleying when they need it most, irrespective of the surface.Above all, they have grown, despite their differences, into two of the greatest and enduring champions in any sport, both poised to finish with the record for Grand Slam men’s singles titles that has become, however reductive, the tennis gold standard.Win on Tuesday and Nadal can protect his slim lead. Lose and Djokovic will have a tying 21st in his sights, though not necessarily in his grasp. Tougher matches just might await. More

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    It’s the French Open. Why Can’t the French Win?

    PARIS — The most prominent feature of the French Open is that this Grand Slam tournament takes place on the rusty red clay of Roland Garros, a beloved feature that is as much a part of local culture and tradition as the bouquinistes that sell art and used books along the Seine.And yet, as it so often is in the country that claims Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, the relationship between France and its “terre battue” is a little more complicated.This red clay that comes from a small brick factory in Oise, north of Paris, elicits so much love.“My favorite surface,” said Stéphane Levy, a lifelong member of the Tennis Club of Paris, a favorite haunt of some of the country’s top players, including Gilles Simon and Corentin Moutet, where eight of the 18 courts are made from the same clay as those at Roland Garros.“There is no feeling like playing on it,” Levy said. “The sliding, the clay on your body when you sweat.”But the clay has also become a symbol of deep frustration. A Frenchwoman has not won the singles championship this country so treasures, the one that requires more grit but also more thought than any other, since Mary Pierce in 2000. A Frenchman has not won it in 39 years, since Yannick Noah in 1983. The last of the French men and women were eliminated from the singles tournaments on Saturday.Why?There are 800 children taking part in the tennis school of the Tennis Club of Paris.Players and coaches of the club’s second men’s team gathered before an interclub match.The answer likely has a lot to do with a central contradiction in the home of red clay’s biggest stage. Just 11.5 percent of the tennis courts in France are made of the traditional red clay and most of those are in private clubs. Another 16.5 percent of courts are made of an imitation clay surface that is similar to the terre battue but plays harder and faster than the softer, traditional clay.Maintaining red clay in cold, wet weather, which is common in France for much of the year, is practically impossible, and building indoor complexes for them is expensive. So most French tennis players grow up playing on hardcourts, unlike their counterparts in Spain, where temperate weather and red clay dominate the way Rafael Nadal (who won Sunday in five sets) and so many Spaniards before him have dominated Roland Garros.That tennis at the highest level is contested on different surfaces is as normal to tennis fans as fuzzy yellow balls and grunting forehands, but it is one of the great quirks of the sport. Imagine for a moment if the N.B.A. played 70 percent of its games on hardwood, 20 percent on rubber and 10 percent on rag wool carpeting. That is essentially what professional tennis players do, spending the first three months on hardcourts, the next two on clay, roughly six weeks on grass, and then most of the rest of the year back on hardcourts.While the surfaces have become more similar in recent years, each requires a unique set of skills and produces a very different style of play.Grass and clay are at the extremes, with grass being the fastest of the three surfaces. A player from the Mont Rouge Tennis Club in action in an inter-club men’s match.Valentin Simon, left, the son of professional player Gilles Simon, and Jules Haehnel, center, the son of Jérome Haehnel, best known for defeating Andre Agassi in 2004 at Roland Garros, taking a lesson from Benjamin Marty.Clay is the slowest. The ball pops off the dirt and hangs in the air for a split-second longer, allowing players to catch up with it and extend rallies, and forcing them to play a more tactical style, grinding from the baseline.Watch an hour of pro tennis on each surface. If you cut out all the time between points, actual tennis playing on clay accounts for about 13 minutes, according to multiple studies of energy and effort in the sport. That is significantly more than on other surfaces, where the player returning serve is at a more severe disadvantage and can struggle to put the ball back in play.Hard courts are at roughly the halfway point, and require an all-around game.Among the pros, the red clay is both loved and loathed.“I don’t like it much,” said Daniil Medvedev of Russia, the world’s second ranked male player, who struggled for years to win a match at the French Open and reached the fourth round on Saturday.Nick Kyrgios of Australia has no use for the surface and skips the clay-court season altogether. Iga Swiatek of Poland, the world’s top-ranked woman, would spend her whole career sliding around on it if she could.Edouard Villoslada, 22, practiced his serve under the eye of a former ATP player, Aurelio Di Zazzo, on one of the clay courts at the Tennis Club of Paris.Members of the club playing on the indoor courts.Winning on clay requires a Ph.D. in what coaches and players call “point construction,” which is shorthand for playing tennis like chess, thinking not only about this next shot, but three shots down the line. Learning that to the point where it is instinctual can take years, and like most things, the earlier one starts training the brain to think that way, the better.“On clay, the fight really goes on and on,” said Aurelio Di Zazzo, a coach at the Tennis Club of Paris. “The longer the effort, the more you have to use your mind.”The club, which is less than a mile from Roland Garros, tries to carry red clay’s torch as best it can. That torch is not cheap. Maintaining the courts requires four full-time employees, and new clay costs more than $2,000 a year for each court. Each court must be entirely dug up and redone every 15 years, costing more than $30,000 per court.Levy said it is worth it.“This clay is a part of France,” he said.France’s tennis federation agrees. The organization also really wants a French Open singles champion. It is scheduled to announce a new plan to promote tennis on the “terre battue” in July. Perhaps that can help. More

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    It’s Djokovic vs. Nadal, the French Open Rematch We’ve Been Waiting For

    Djokovic, the world No. 1, and Nadal, the 13-time French Open champion, will continue their epic rivalry on Tuesday in the quarterfinal at Roland Garros.PARIS — As the kids like to say these days, it’s on.Far sooner than many may have hoped, Novak Djokovic, the reigning French Open champion, will take on Rafael Nadal, a 13-time champion at Roland Garros, in a quarterfinal match on Tuesday, the first rematch of two of the leading men’s players since their epic semifinal last June.It took some of Nadal’s greatest tennis to survive a five-set, four-hour, 21-minute thriller Sunday evening against Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, but the match that so many crave is on the horizon.“A huge challenge and probably the biggest one that you can have here in Roland Garros,” Djokovic said, anticipating Nadal, after his fourth straight-sets win, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, a pummeling of Diego Schwartzman of Argentina. “I’m ready for it.”Perhaps more than Nadal, who survived one of the great scares of his storied French Open career against Auger-Aliassime, the athletic and tireless Canadian with a booming serve and big forehand.“We have a lot of history together,” Nadal said of Djokovic.They have played each other 58 times, with Djokovic holding a 30-28 edge. It is a classic clash of styles, Nadal blasting away and running wild on the clay, his favorite surface, and Djokovic bringing his exquisite timing, incomparable steel, and the most varied arsenal in the game.Even more, it is a clash of two men whose personalities and trajectories, especially over the past year, have pushed them into different realms of the sport and public consciousness. One is a beloved citizen of the world, the other a polarizing, outspoken iconoclast so set in his beliefs that he was prepared to spend his last prime years on the sidelines rather than receive a vaccination against Covid-19.There were scattered boos as Djokovic was introduced on the Suzanne Lenglen Court on Sunday. Fans at the main court, Philippe Chatrier, chanted “Rafa, Rafa,” through the evening, urging on the Spanish champion who is immortalized with a nine-foot statue outside the stadium.Since Djokovic pulled off the nearly impossible by beating Nadal at last year’s French Open, Nadal has been jousting indirectly with his chief rival.Novak Djokovic beat Diego Schwartzman in straight sets on Sunday to advance to the quarterfinals against Nadal.Julien De Rosa/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesDjokovic mounted an all-out quest last year to pull ahead of Nadal and Roger Federer in Grand Slam tournament titles and nearly did it, evening the Big Three at 20 wins each for six months and coming within one match of surging ahead. Nadal, who largely ended his 2021 season after the French Open because of a chronic foot injury, said finishing his career with the most major championships mattered little to him.Djokovic has refused to get vaccinated and questioned established science. Nadal got vaccinated long ago, because, he said, he is a tennis player and in no position to question what experts say is best for public health.Djokovic has tried to spearhead an independent players organization, the Professional Tennis Players Association, which he launched with a handful of other players in 2020. Nadal has refused to join the group and remains a member of the player council of the ATP, which has kept Djokovic’s organization on the outside of the sport’s decision-making process.On the court, they have captured each other’s most treasured possessions. After beating Nadal in the semifinals last year, Djokovic erased a two-set deficit and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final to win his second French Open title.In January, after being largely inactive for six months, unsure whether his foot would ever allow him to play again, Nadal won the Australian Open, which Djokovic had won nine times, more than any other Grand Slam tournament.Djokovic had won three consecutive Australian Opens and traveled to the country expecting to be allowed to defend his titles. He had tested positive for Covid-19 and recovered in mid-December. He thought that was supposed to gain him entry into the country despite its strict rules prohibiting unvaccinated visitors. He was detained at the border and deported after government officials deemed his stance against vaccinations a threat to public health.As the controversy unfolded, Nadal said in some ways he felt sorry for his rival, then kicked a bit of dirt at Djokovic, who was locked in a Melbourne hotel with asylum seekers.“He knew the conditions since a lot of months ago,” Nadal said, “so he makes his own decision.”The shadow sparring has continued in Paris. Djokovic complained that the ATP had not involved his player organization in its discussions with Wimbledon after the tournament barred players from Russia and Belarus in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The tour responded by announcing it would not award rankings points for the event, a move Nadal defended as necessary for protecting all players.They even have different approaches to their careers. Djokovic said Sunday that being ranked No. 1 was “was always the highest goal beginning every season, particularly being in the era with Federer, Nadal.”A few hours later, Nadal, currently ranked fifth, said he never paid any attention to his ranking. Just a number. Not important to him.With their showdown now less than 48 hours away, the conversation has turned to whether they will play during the day or night, with each making his preference known to tournament organizers.Djokovic, left, and Nadal in their semifinal match at the 2021 French Open.Pete Kiehart for The New York TimesNadal favors playing during the day, when the weather is warmer, and the ball bounces high off the clay, right into his wheelhouse, and flies off his racket.Djokovic excels at night, especially in Australia and at the U.S. Open, when conditions are colder and slower. His match against Nadal last year turned when the sun went down, the temperature dropped and Nadal struggled to hit the ball through the court. Nadal said last week he did not believe clay-court tennis should happen at night. Too cold and too damp, which makes the clay stick to balls, giving them the feel of heavy rocks on his racket.Nadal won the initial scheduling battle Sunday, playing his match on the Philippe Chatrier Court. Organizers put Djokovic on the second court, Suzanne Lenglen, a smaller and more open venue with just one level of seats, making it susceptible to high winds.Djokovic managed the challenge, making Schwartzman seem like a sparring partner who forced Djokovic to run and stay on the court long enough — a little more than two hours — but not too long. After one spirited sprint to the net for a perfectly feathered drop-shot return, he put his finger to his ear, asking the crowd to give him his due.Nadal had no such concerns, though he struggled from the start of the chilly and breezy evening. Forty minutes into the match, he was down 5-1 and two breaks of serve, the rarest of events for someone who came into the match with a 108-3 record in this tournament.Nadal often kicks clean the nub of tape in the middle of the baseline before heading to his chair for a changeover. As Auger-Aliassime, pumped his fist after clinching the first set, 6-3, Nadal spent an extra few seconds working the line with his foot, taking an extra moment seemingly to prepare for the challenging places this match was going.Nadal appeared to take control of the match in winning the second and third sets but, unlike Djokovic, Nadal has been anything but clinical at Roland Garros this year, losing opportunities to close out opponents like the assassin he has been in years past.It happened again on Sunday. In the end, at the crucial moments of the last two games in the final set, it took a magical, on-the-run forehand flick for a down-the-line passing shot, an all-out sprint to catch up to a drop volley, a perfect second serve on the T, two more all-out chases and two deep, signature forehands for Nadal to set up his showdown with Djokovic.Just as everyone was hoping. More

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    Leylah Fernandez and Coco Gauff Advance at the French Open

    She outlasted Amanda Anisimova, a hard-hitting American, showing the kind of big-stage composure that got her to the final of last year’s U.S. Open.PARIS — It is a new season and a different surface, but Leylah Fernandez, still tenacious and still a teenager, is back in the deep end of another Grand Slam tournament.She needed all of her resourcefulness and upbeat energy on this unseasonably chilly Sunday afternoon at Roland Garros.Amanda Anisimova, a 20-year-old American seeded 27th, is one of the biggest pure hitters in women’s tennis, capable of generating phenomenal pace with a seemingly casual swipe of the racket.She has a new model this season, which has helped her control her easy power. The 17th-seeded Fernandez spent nearly two hours digging in the corners and lunging for returns, but in the end, the counterpuncher beat the puncher 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 as Fernandez’s quickness, consistency and yes-I-can positivity made the small difference as she advanced to her first French Open quarterfinal.“She’s very offensive,” Fernandez said. “I just tried to be as offensive as her and just take my chances, and the balls went in today.”That is no coincidence at this stage. Fernandez, a 19-year-old Canadian, looks like a big-stage player and was part of perhaps the biggest surprise in tennis history when she and another unseeded teenager, Emma Raducanu, advanced to the U.S. Open final last year with Raducanu, a qualifier, winning in straight sets.The rest of the women’s field has certainly taken notice.“I’m thinking, especially if the U.S. Open taught us anything, that anybody can win on any day,” said Coco Gauff, an 18-year-old American who is seeded 18th at Roland Garros.Gauff played one of the better matches on Sunday, defeating No. 31 seed Elise Mertens 6-4, 6-0 to return to the French Open quarterfinals, where she lost last year to the eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova in an error-strewn match that Gauff ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of her short career because of the way she managed the most significant points.“I think that was the biggest lesson I learned last year in my quarterfinal,” Gauff said. “I had a couple of set points, and I think I freaked out when some of those points didn’t go my way. Today I didn’t freak out.”Instead, she gathered strength and showed increased patience on the clay, often engaging in long rallies with Mertens before going for winners (or hitting a lunging backhand around the net post).Her work on herself and with her new coach, Diego Moyano, seems to be paying dividends, and Gauff will next face one of Moyano’s former pupils, Sloane Stephens, in an all-American, intergenerational duel.Stephens, 29, is unseeded this year but has long thrived on clay and was a French Open finalist in 2018. On Sunday, she overwhelmed Jil Teichmann 6-2, 6-0. Stephens defeated Gauff 6-4, 6-2 in the second round of last year’s U.S. Open when they played for the first time on tour. But that was hardly the first meeting. Both are based in South Florida, and Stephens attended Gauff’s 10th birthday party and practiced with Gauff for the first time when Gauff was 12 and already planning on facing Stephens on much bigger stages.“Today I didn’t freak out,” Coco Gauff said of her straight-sets win on Sunday.Yoan Valat/EPA, via Shutterstock“I had a very competitive mind-set since I was a little girl,” Gauff said. “Yes, I looked up to her and all that, but I knew that I was going to be playing against her.”For those who followed the dueling Cinderella stories, Fernandez and Raducanu will be forever linked, but though both were seeded here in Paris, they have not been on parallel paths since New York.Neither has come close to taking the regular tour by storm. That has been reserved for a player who is only slightly older: the new No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who at age 20 has won 31 straight matches and remains a prohibitive favorite at Roland Garros, where she was a surprise teenage champion herself in 2020.But while Raducanu has signed a series of major endorsement deals and shuffled coaches, she has yet to get past the quarterfinals of a regular tour event since the U.S. Open. Fernandez has often lost early as well but she did defend her singles title in Monterrey, Mexico, in March and is now making her best run in Paris with a fine chance to go further considering that she will face the unseeded Italian Martina Trevisan in a rare quarterfinal between left-handers at Roland Garros.Sloane Stephens will face Gauff, her fellow American, in the quarterfinals.Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesFernandez said she put too much pressure on herself to succeed after the U.S. Open final.“I just wanted to be more offensive, more aggressive and improve my game as fast as possible,” she said. “I think I just understood that there is a process, and it’s still a long year, a very long year, and I just need to calm myself down, calm my mind down. And just accept that things are going to be tough, things are going to go sideways in a match, in a practice. And just understand that I’ve got more tools in my toolbox that I can use and just find solutions.”That last sentence sounds like she has been studying the Rafael Nadal phrase book, and there is indeed a touch of Nadal in Fernandez on court. She, too, is a speedy lefty with unorthodox technique. Nadal has his bolo-whip finish on the forehand; Fernandez has extreme grips of her own and often hits her two-handed backhand with her hands far apart.There are the intangibles, too: the in-the-moment combativeness; the resolute walk between points and the ingrained rituals. Anisimova might want to jot down a few notes considering her lingering tendency to get negative. She often grimaced at her errors on Sunday, mocking her own shots and flinging her racket across the red clay in frustration late in the final set to the sound of a few scattered boos from stands that were never more than half full on the main Chatrier Court.Fernandez seemed like a more composed and focused presence. Even if her game was a flickering flame, her commitment was not.“Every time I step out on the court I still have something to prove,” she said. “I still have that mind-set I’m the underdog. I’m still young. I still have a lot to show to the people, to the public so that they can just enjoy the tennis match.” More

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    Medvedev Seizes Chance to Make an Impression on French Open Fans

    Daniil Medvedev and other Russians, barred from competing at Wimbledon because of the war in Ukraine, have made a run in the French Open. The ban remains a sensitive issue in tennis.PARIS — Banned from Wimbledon, the Russians seem intent on making the most of the Grand Slam tournament at hand.One by one, they took to the red clay at the French Open on Saturday, and one by one, they emerged victorious.Daria Kasatkina and Veronika Kudermetova advanced to the fourth round in women’s singles. Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev did the same in men’s singles, joining their compatriot Karen Khachanov, who was already set to face Carlos Alcaraz, the Spanish teen sensation, on Sunday.Medvedev remains the most intriguing Russian at Roland Garros on multiple levels. As the No. 2 seed, he is on relatively dry land for the moment: on the opposite half of the draw from Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Alcaraz.He was once seemingly allergic to clay, at least the French Open, losing in the first round in his first four appearances. He still has a losing record on the surface, but he made a French Open quarterfinal run last year, and after hernia surgery in March that caused him to miss most of the clay-court season, he arrived in Paris seemingly fresh in body and mind. On court, he has rumbled past three solid players in straight sets, including the No. 28 seed Miomir Kecmanovic on Saturday: 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.Medvedev did not lose his serve and seemed to be one step or slide ahead of Kecmanovic from start to finish, absorbing pace, producing power and precision on demand, and using his big wingspan at 6-foot-6 to close down the openings.“Today was truly magnificent,” Medvedev said in the sunshine as he gave his post-match interview on Suzanne Lenglen Court. “It was all working for me. There are days like that, and I hope more like that will be possible in the days ahead.”Medvedev was conducting the interview in fluent French. He has been based on the French Riviera since his teens, and with his droll sense of humor and language skills he is able to connect with the Parisian public on a level that is unusual for a foreign tennis player (as long as he continues to avoid berating chair umpires or breaking rackets in a fit of pique).The global repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have included a sensitive dilemma for tennis, prompted by Wimbledon’s decision to bar Russian and Belarusian players from the tournament next month. The men’s and women’s tours responded by stripping Wimbledon of its ranking points, saying the move was needed to protect its systems that in part determine tournament qualifications.It is, as Djokovic described it, “a lose-lose” situation: full of hard choices and restless nights for those making the calls.But Medvedev, caught in the maelstrom, hardly seemed a pariah on Saturday as he cracked jokes with the interviewer Marion Bartoli, a former French star and Wimbledon champion.“He speaks French as well as we do, like someone born in France even if he was born in Moscow,” she said. “He understands what is going on, understands his environment, and it’s clear that it pleases the public here a great deal that he communicates in their language.”Some of that is due to communicating for years in French with his longtime French coach, Gilles Cervara.“Gilles is sometimes trying to use words on purpose that I don’t know, that I should know, that are uncommon,” Medvedev said. “It’s the same thing with tennis, where you’re trying to do things that are out of the ordinary to shake things up and do something extra. You have to always improve.”I asked Medvedev later what it would take for him to be considered “a dirtballer.”His reaction: “What is ‘dirtballer’?”Apprised that it meant clay-courter, he smiled and said: “I’ll have to do better than last year in Roland Garros. That’s for sure.”Like many a Muscovite, including Rublev, Medvedev grew up playing much of the year in fast indoor conditions.“It was not even hardcourts — it was more like indoor ice,” Rublev said with a laugh on Saturday. “You touch the ball and the ball is like a rocket. You hit one ball and the ball is going so fast, even when you are 6 years old. In Moscow, there is actually plenty of clay, but the problem is there’s not much summer, only two or three months, so you don’t get much time to play on it.”Rublev, the No. 7 seed and long based in Spain, has had more consistent results on clay at the pro level and was a quarterfinalist at the French Open in 2020 and a finalist at the Monte Carlo Open last year. His forehand, hit with heavy topspin and major racket-head speed, fits the traditional vision of a clay-courter much more than Medvedev’s with his comparatively flat strokes.But it is very tempting to agree with Rublev that Medvedev’s biggest obstacle on clay is between the ears.“He didn’t beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo for nothing,” Rublev said in an interview, recalling a 2019 upset. “So, I think it’s more about him, that he put this in his head, than it is about the clay. And we can all see now that he has won all the matches here quite easy, beating good players.”Still, the path does not get smoother. Medvedev is in a more welcoming neighborhood than the top half of the draw, but it is still a rough neighborhood with Rublev, Jannik Sinner, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Hubert Hurkacz and Casper Ruud all on the prowl.Next up for Medvedev: the No. 20 seed Marin Cilic, who overwhelmed a weary Gilles Simon, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2, on Saturday in the 37-year-old Simon’s final French Open match (he will retire at year’s end). Simon, one of the cleanest hitters and deeper thinkers on tour, gave an excellent summary of why it will soon be time to bid adieu.“It’s a lot of work and a lot of suffering,” Simon said. “I am at three anti-inflammatories and six paracetamols before the match. The only thing left to try is morphine. I know where I’m at. I’ll give it my all until the end of the year.”Medvedev sounded world-weary himself after losing the Australian Open final to Nadal in January with the crowd against him. He looked tired and irritable in March as he lost early in Indian Wells to Gael Monfils and in the quarterfinals in Miami to Hurkacz before undergoing surgery.Even his successes have been tempered of late. When he rose to No. 1 for the first time on Feb. 28, his breakthrough came as Russia invaded Ukraine, rightly darkening the mood. He stayed on top for only three weeks before Djokovic reclaimed the spot. But the tours’ decision to strip the points from Wimbledon, where Djokovic won the title last year, means that Medvedev is in prime position to return to No. 1 in the coming weeks.Barring a highly unlikely compromise, he will be watching Wimbledon from afar, but for now at least, he is in the Grand Slam arena, in no mood to talk politics but increasingly eager to speak in French and about clay.“I hope the better I speak French, the better I will play,” he said on court, the Roland Garros crowd already “dans la poche” (in the pocket), even if the champions trophy is not. More