From the moment the draw was made and the Big Three found themselves playing in the same half, the possible semi-final meeting between the world number one, Novak Djokovic and the King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, became the main talking point.
It was a tough moment. I'm very proud that from this moment I played probably my best level of tennis until the end of the match, with not many mistakes Rafa Nadal
Now, that ‘has come to pass’ as the saying goes, but their respective quarter-final opponents didn’t let them through easily.
First up was Nadal playing the diminutive – in tennis terms – Diego Schwartzman, an Argentine with a big heart and a player who has made the most of his talent thereby belying his stature. His determination and fitness has seen him reach the top ten and that determination nearly derailed Nadal in his quest for a 14th French Open title.
‘El Peque’ as Schwartzman is known – a truncation of ‘pequeño’ meaning ‘shorty’ in Spanish – took the match to Nadal and both players, experts on clay, enthralled the 5,000 crowd now allowed into the Court Philippe-Chatrier for the first time under revised French Covid regulations, which also extended the curfew from 9.00 to 11.00pm.
But while Nadal eventually prevailed after two-hours and 45-minutes, 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-0, he knew he had been in a battle – especially over the opening two sets.
Having won the opener, Nadal was expected to continue his run of sets won at Roland Garros, but Schwartzman raised his own game to become the player who snapped it at the 36 mark, the first dropped since the 2019 final!
The Argentine’s aggression no doubt surprised Nadal, but he deserved to level the match as he raised the temperature within the stadium and fostered the possibility of possibly toppling the defending champion.
In the third set, El Peque continued to cause problems for the King of Clay and looked set to actually go into a 2 sets to 1 lead which hadn’t happened to Nadal at the French since the first round of 2011 when facing John Isner!
At 4-all in the third it suddenly changed. Nadal upped his own aggression to swing the match back in his favour.
Nadal broke for 5-4 and served out to edge ahead, then dropped just five points in a 35 point, one-sided fourth set as a physically drained Schwartzman, quickly faded away.
“I was in a tricky situation, 4-3 for him in the third set, one set all. That was the moment to calm myself, to think about the things that I was doing well in practice,” said Nadal.
“It was a tough moment. I’m very proud that from this moment I played probably my best level of tennis until the end of the match, with not many mistakes.”
It had been close, of that there was no doubt.
“I started badly in the second set, then I was able to come back,” Nadal said. “But at 4-4, returning with the wind, I played a bad game and hit a double fault in the next game. I needed to play more aggressively, and I did throughout the rest of the match. I won an important match today against a tough opponent. I was able to find a way to play my best tennis in the moments that I really needed to.”
Nadal now leads the Argentine – who he also beat in the semis last year – 11-1 as he ups his current match winning streak at the event to 35 while improving his overall record at Roland Garros to an incredible 105-2.
Djokovic, who followed Nadal on court in the evening session, would have been delighted to see his rival pushed to the limit, albeit recovering well to progress through, and no doubt, expected to have a quick match himself and expend as little energy as possible.
His opponent, the big-hitting Italian Matteo Berrettini, was slow to start as the world number one asserted himself quickly to try and fulfil his goal of a straight sets win only for Berrettini to upset his rhythm in the third by winning three consecutive points in the tie-breaker to force a fourth set!
With the clock fast approaching the 11.00pm curfew, the spectators were asked to vacate the stadium within 15-minutes of the deadline. The majority did but a few refused forcing the organisers to ask the players to leave the court with the score on serve at 3-2 in Djokovic’s favour, to allow Security to evict the stubborn individuals.
Play was halted for 20-minutes and on resumption, Djokovic took a tumble falling on his hand which drew some blood.
The pair hammered the ball for several games only for Berrettini, serving at 5-6, to show the first signs of fatigue allowing the top seed to recharge himself to go on and snatch the semi-final place 6-3 6-2 6-7(5) 7-5.
“This match had it all: falls, crowd, break. It was a lot of intensity,” Djokovic said later.
“I just felt under tension the entire time. I felt like I missed some of the chances to end the match in the third set. I didn’t want to give him too much opportunities to dictate the match. That’s why it was just super, super stressful to constantly be under pressure on my service games because his service games were quite smooth with the big serve.
“Yeah, the reaction in the end was just me liberating that tension that was building up for the entire match.”
And so to the Big Blockbuster on Friday.
Djokovic has won the last 9 semi-finals he has played against Nadal but the Spaniard leads the Serb 19-7 when it comes to playing on clay and, more specifically, 7-1 at Roland Garros.
“The quality and the level of tennis that I’ve been playing in the last three, four weeks on clay – Rome, Belgrade and here – is giving me good sensations and feelings ahead of that match,” Djokovic said. “I’m confident. I believe I can win, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Let’s have a great battle.”
It will be their 58th meeting overall with Djokovic holding the slight advantage at 29-28.