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Rafael Nadal survives Schwartzman fight to make French Open semis

It was uncomfortable and it cost him his run of winning 36 sets in succession at the French Open, but Rafael Nadal has lived up to his half of the deal. The 13-time French Open champion responded to a typically thorough examination from Diego Schwartzman by devastating him, beating the Argentinian 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 to reach the 16th semi-final of his career. He now awaits a possible 58th encounter with Novak Djokovic next.

Even though Nadal had reached the second week without a set lost, the discomfort was no surprise. There is rarely a time that Schwartzman steps on the court with Nadal and does not inflict some pain in the long, physical rallies that follow. He always leaves a mark just as he did after beating Nadal on clay at the Italian Open last year as the Spaniard was returning from his extended pandemic hiatus.

After Nadal breezed through a simple first set, Schwartzman started the second determined to remain on top of the baseline. He fought his way forward and took the ball early whenever he could, eviscerating groundstrokes off both wings but also eagerly finishing points at the net and producing more than a couple of beautiful lobs.

While Nadal has reached the semi-finals without major problems, there have been some flaws. He has served at such a high level in recent years, but it has not been great since his back injury earlier in 2021. There have been times, whether in this match or earlier in the tournament, that he has completely lost rhythm on his forehand.

Those issues all converged against a player full of belief in his ability to effect the match. Schwartzman broke serve early with a tremendous inside out forehand return to seal it. When he was immediately pegged back to 3-3 by Nadal, he did not panic, piecing together two holds of serve, both sealed with vicious forehand winners. The pressure he inflicted on Nadal eventually told, with Nadal producing an error-laden service game at 4-5. On Schwartzman’s first set point, Nadal played a poor drop shot and shanked his passing shot into the stands.

The match had shifted entirely by the third set. Schwartzman held all the momentum and he handled it well, breezing through his own service games as Nadal twice had to dig himself out of 15-30 holes. As he moved to a 4-3 lead, Schwartzman was playing his best tennis of the match, winning 11 service points in a row to establish a 4-3 lead. He did everything he could and he challenged Nadal to keep up.

It is entirely a reflection of Nadal’s greatness that this was the totality of Schwartzman’s impact. In the most dangerous point of the match, Nadal’s level skyrocketed and produced his cleanest passage of tennis. At 30-0 in the following game, he crushed a forehand winner and pumped his fists to the sky. By 4-4, he finally found enough consistent forehand depth to push Schwartman behind the baseline. He broke serve by eliciting two backhand errors and one short backhand from Schwartzman through his relentless pressure.

And that was all. Schwartzman played a wonderful match but after his hot streak at 4-3 in the third won only six points on serve until the end. Nadal won the final nine games in a flurry of forehand winners and there was little Schwartzman could do. “Well done for him, he’s a great player, so [it] should be a tough match,” said Nadal afterwards. “I needed to play a little bit more aggressively and I think I did it a bit later, so very happy for that.”

With another victory, Nadal’s record at Roland Garros is now 105-2 and he is two wins away from his 14thtitle. Every time he has reached this stage of the tournament, he has won. Here he is at 35 years old, still tournament favourite and still giving himself the best chance of doing so again.

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