By Liz Clarke in Paris
PARIS — With 20 Grand Slam titles and unparalleled grace, Roger Federer will go down in tennis history as the game’s most artful practitioner and, in the view of many, its greatest player.
But Federer will step away from the sport, at some point in the not-too-distant future, never having solved the impossible problem that is Rafael Nadal on the red clay of Roland Garros.
In their 39th career meeting and the most anticipated tennis match in years, Nadal outplayed Federer in every facet of the game Friday on Court Philippe Chatrier, where the Spaniard mastered not only the Swiss but maddening gusts of wind to claim a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory that clinched a spot in Sunday’s French Open final. There, Nadal will face world No. 1 Novak Djokovic or Austria’s Dominic Thiem for a chance to extend his record 11 French Open championships and claim an 18th major title that would nudge him closer to Federer’s record 20.
The Djokovic-Thiem semifinal was suspended because of rain, with the fourth-seeded Thiem leading 6-2, 3-6, 3-1, and will resume Saturday at noon (6 a.m. Eastern time).
With his victory, Nadal snapped a five-match losing streak to Federer, improving his career record against the Swiss to 24-15. His career record in matches at the French Open stands at 92-2.
Nadal achieved it against an opponent who played well yet never managed to take charge on the tricky red clay of Chatrier, which Nadal has turned into his personal fiefdom these past 14 years.
Federer had no trouble acknowledging Nadal’s supremacy on the surface.
“He makes you feel uncomfortable, the way he defends the court and plays on clay,” Federer said afterward. “There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him.”
Federer confessed that he was so stymied by Nadal’s heavy strokes and relentless retrieval skills that his mind wandered, at one point during the match, to the fact that it was impossible to find a similar left-handed sparring partner to help him practice and prepare for matches against the Spaniard because he was such an outlier.
Nadal, informed of the comment, tipped his hat to the Swiss in return.
“Well, I don’t find any sparring partners, either, playing like Federer,” Nadal said with a smile. “There are no two people like Federer on this planet — luckily, actually.”
So much had changed since the two first played each other at the French Open, meeting in the 2005 semifinals, at 23 and 19, brimming with the promise of greatness in their starkly contrasting strokes and tactics.
Federer, 37, is now a father of four;and Nadal a 33-year-old man with thinning hair.
Through their rise in tennis, throughout their prime and amid the revered status each now holds, Federer and Nadal have served as each other’s greatest benchmark.
Time has not dimmed their brilliance or dulled the significance of their rivalry.
But on Friday, as was the case all five previous times they had met at the French Open, Nadal was superior in every way.
Their semifinal got underway shortly after 1 p.m. here, following a morning rain that left gray skies and 15-mph winds in its wake.
The wind gained strength as the match unfolded, gusting with such fury that trees swayed, flags made snapping sounds and the court’s clay kicked up like toxic clouds of red dust.
In truth, each was battling two opponents rather than the customary one: The player across the net and the wind that toyed with timing, service tosses and strategy.
“The conditions out there today have been so hard, so difficult to manage,” Nadal said afterward. It “was the day to be just focused, accept all the adversities, and just be focused and positive all the time.”
Of the two, Nadal adapted more easily. Then again, his topspin-heavy strokes have more margin of error. Federer’s shots, by contrast, are typically surgically precise. And the effectiveness of his serve resides in its placement rather than power.
For the Swiss, all of that went on the window. Federer tried lowering his ball toss to limit the wind’s effect, and the percentage of first serves that he landed nose-dived — 80 percent in the first set, 53 percent in the second set and an unspeakable 38 percent in the final set.
“You get to a point where you're just happy to make shots and not look ridiculous,” said Federer, famously known for never looking ridiculous on court. “I mean, it's that bad.”
Nadal claimed the opening set with a two-fisted, cross-court backhand winner, thunderstruck as he slid well out of court to retrieve it.
After that, the crowd in 15,000-seat Chatrier lined up fiercely behind Federer. If this was to be Federer and Nadal’s final meeting at a Grand Slam — almost certainly, their final meeting at the French Open — they wanted it to go on forever.
Federer got off to a promising start in the second set, breaking Nadal for a 2-0 lead. But the Spaniard broke back despite the wind being at Federer’s back, and the momentum never swung back.
Where Federer erred, on the rare moments that he hit a truly regrettable shot, it was in misreading Nadal’s retrieval skills. More than once, the Swiss tried a crafty back-spinning drop shot that would have been a winner against 99 percent of opponents lurking so far behind the baseline, only to watch Nadal run the ball down and fire it back for a winner.
Point after point, wherever Federer went with the ball, Nadal anticipated as if telepathically wired.
Trailing two sets to none, Federer was determined to stay positive, telling himself that it was simply as if a new, best-of-three-sets match were just starting.
But nothing changed about the devilish wind. And Nadal, sensing victory, only got stronger.
In many respects, it was a victory for Federer, nonetheless. He hadn’t competed at the French Open in four years, having been sidelined by injury in 2016 and skipped the sport’s most grueling major in 2017 and 2018 to focus on his grass-court preparation for Wimbledon, where he has won eight of his 20 Grand Slam titles.
Federer returned to the French Open this year with few expectations, he said at the outset, and reached the semifinals, where his run was halted by a clay-court master.
“I don’t think I played poorly in the wind today,” said Federer, who seemed at peace with the outcome. “It’s just, it’s tough on clay….[Nadal is] the best clay-court player, so I can accept that. It’s not a problem.”
Live updates from the match
By Ava Wallace in Washington
Federer’s first trip to the French Open since 2015 ended in the semifinals against his longtime rival. There was spectacular shot-making and impeccable defense on display throughout the match, even if there wasn’t much drama in Nadal’s straight-sets win, which improves the Spaniard’s grand slam record against Federer to 10-3. Nadal turned up the heat late in the second set and Federer couldn’t keep up after that.
Third set: Nadal closes in, leads 4-1
Federer’s got no answers for Nadal’s shots that just bend in to clip the line. The Spaniard is closing in on quite an achievement — no one has beaten Federer in straight sets in a grand slam since Stan Wawrinka did it in the French Open quarterfinals in 2015.
Third set: Federer’s frustration shows, Nadal leads 2-1
Nadal is ruffling Federer in a way we’re not used to seeing — not only did Nadal provoke a big grunt out of the rival (gasp!) on one particularly arduous shot in the second set, but also Federer launched a ball into the stands after Nadal broke his serve to take a 2-1 lead. Federer earned a warning from the umpire for that.
Second set: Nadal breaks through deadlock to win, 6-4
Nadal broke Federer in the ninth game of the second after Federer was up 40-0, then served out the set to take a commanding lead in a match that has not disappointed despite the tricky weather. Nadal, standing closer to the baseline than he usually would to take better advantage of Federer’s off-speed serves, looks a touch more dialed in than the Swiss champion. Federer hasn’t been able to hit through Nadal what with the latter’s impressive court coverage. This could be quicker than we thought — and keep in mind, Nadal is 99-0 in best-of-five matches on clay after winning the first set.
First set: Nadal wins, 6-3
Nadal clinched the first set with an impressive cross-court backhand winner on the run as he and Roger Federer play through tough conditions that include wind so strong there was a sandstorm of sorts on the court. The wind favors Nadal slightly more, though even he wasn’t at his best early on, hitting eight winners to 10 “unforced” errors, plenty of which the wind carried out.
First set: Nadal leads 3-1
Nadal starts his 39th meeting with Roger Federer with a quick 3-1 lead in the first set. The first two games took 14 minutes to complete (both went to deuce), which could mean we’re in for a long morning. It’s so windy in Paris that things are blowing onto court and so chilly — about 58 degrees, per the Tennis Channel — that there are many empty seats on Court Philippe Chatriet.
Here’s a tale of the tape of one of the greatest rivalries in tennis history, compiled from ATPTour.com.
|6-1, 187||Height, Weight||6-1, 187|
|17||Grand Slam titles||20|
|11||French Open titles||1|
|25-5 (1)||2019 record (titles)||22-3 (2)|
|9-3||H-H at Grand Slams||3-9|
|5-0||H-H at French Open||0-5|
|13-2||H-H on clay||2-13|
Worth noting: Nadal and Federer’s 38 previous meetings are the third most between two men in the Open Era, according to the ATP Tour. One of the only rivalries that has been contested more often — Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic (54 times) and Federer vs. Djokovic (47) — could well see its next chapter played in Sunday’s final.