PARIS — Rafael Nadal advanced to his 14th French Open final Friday under conditions no champion wants, with his opponent, third-ranked Alexander Zverev, suffering what appeared to be a significant injury late in the second set.
The capacity crowd at 15,000-seat Court Philippe-Chatrier fell silent amid Zverev’s anguished wails, and a trainer was quick to rush to his assistance.
Zverev, the 2020 U.S. Open runner-up, was seeking his second career appearance in a Grand Slam final. He sobbed as he was helped up from the court and taken off in a wheelchair for medical evaluation.
Nadal had claimed the 98-minute opening set by fending off four set points in a 10-8 tiebreaker. He then battled back from an early deficit in the second set and was a point from forcing another tiebreaker when Zverev’s footing on the baseline went horribly awry.
After a few minutes’ pause in the action, Zverev returned to the court on crutches. Nadal walked beside him as Zverev reached up to shake the chair umpire’s hand, and his retirement from the match was announced.
The two players embraced. And Zverev acknowledged the cheers of the crowd, which had been unabashedly pro-Nadal throughout, by raising one crutch at a time while Nadal gathered his opponents’ belongings and packed his bag at his courtside chair.
Zverev’s retirement sent Nadal into Sunday’s final, in which he will face eighth-seeded Casper Ruud of Norway, who defeated 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic of Croatia to reach his first Grand Slam final, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.
The Ruud-Cilic match was delayed for 13 minutes during the third set when a French climate activist rushed onto the court and attached herself to the net with metal wires and glue, according to the French Tennis Federation. She was wearing a T-shirt with the message “We have 1028 days left” and was eventually carried away by four security guards and handed over to the police.
It was the second time this fortnight that security has been breached on the French Open’s featured courts. After Nadal’s third-round victory on Court Suzanne-Lenglen last week, a small boy rushed out to speak to Nadal, who tousled his hair.
The breaches are a troubling matter. In 1993, a deranged fan raced onto court and stabbed Monica Seles as she sat courtside during the Hamburg Open. Paris is also hosting the 2024 Olympics, ostensibly under tight security, with the tennis to be contested at Roland Garros.
Ruud, 23, who is a pupil at Nadal’s tennis academy, blasted 16 aces, compared with the 10 of Cilic, whose serve is typically his weapon. He also committed fewer than half as many unforced errors, 21 to 56.
Ruud has never faced Nadal in a tour match, and he addressed the privilege as well as the inspiration he has drawn from his childhood idol during his on-court interview.
“He is a perfect example of how I think you should behave on court: Never give up and never complain,” Ruud said of Nadal. “He has been my idol for all of my life.”
Nadal’s record at Roland Garros, where he won his first French Open championship at age 19, in 2005, improved to 111-3. At stake Sunday is a chance to extend his men’s record haul of Grand Slam titles to 22, with his rivals Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer knotted at 20 apiece.
“We are colleagues,” Nadal said of Zverev during a somber post-match news conference. “[To] see a colleague on the tour like this, even if for me it’s a dream be in the final of Roland Garros, of course that way is not the way that we want it to be. . . . If you are human, you should feel very sorry for a colleague.”
No further update was given on Zverev’s condition.
With the Philippe-Chatrier roof deployed on a warm, rainy afternoon, the humidity was thick when the Nadal-Zverev match got underway.
What followed was a sweat-soaked slugfest. After 3 hours 13 minutes, the first two sets hadn’t been completed, putting the proceedings on a seven-hour pace, had it gone the five-set distance.
Nadal, who has won all 13 French Open finals he has reached, advanced to this year’s semifinals on the heels of a five-set ordeal against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round and a four-set upset of Djokovic, the world No. 1 and his greatest rival, in the quarterfinals.
Having slogged over eight hours in those two matches alone, Nadal took the court Friday amid questions about his stamina in addition to preexisting questions about his health.
He suffered a cracked rib during a hard-court tournament in March. He is also battling a long-term degenerative condition in his left foot that causes chronic pain. To manage it, Nadal is accompanied at Roland Garros this year by his doctor, whose treatments are enabling him to compete.
“Pain takes away your happiness, not only in tennis but in life,” Nadal said after a flare-up that led to an early exit from the Italian Open in May.
Though Nadal held a 6-3 advantage in previous meetings with Zverev, the 6-foot-6 German, five inches taller and 11 years younger, had won three of their past four matches and took the court looking the fitter, favored man.
Zverev got off to a torrid start, breaking Nadal at the outset and blitzing him with forehand winners.
The humidity soon addled both, and Zverev’s racket flew out of his sweaty hand on one furiously struck cross court shot.
For Nadal, the humidity created tactical problems. It made the balls heavier and bigger, which in turn made it more difficult for him to get the amount of spin he likes. Without Nadal’s signature topspin, the balls he blasts don’t bounce as high, making it easier for opponents to fire back.
So in the unfamiliar position of being pummeled by an opponent’s superior groundstrokes on clay, Nadal changed tactics, countering with a medley of drop shots, off-pace shots, serve-and-volley surprises and patience to coax Zverev into errors.
The crowd made no effort to hide its loyalty, chanting “Rafa! Rafa!” each time he won a point or faced a perilous moment. A small brass band and drummer in the upper deck was raucously dedicated to the Spaniard’s cause.
Zverev’s forehands bordered on unreturnable. Over the two sets, he struck 40 winners to Nadal’s 21.
“When [Zverev] is playing well in any conditions, he’s an amazing player,” Nadal said afterward. “Under these conditions, even was more difficult for me to put him away from the court, no? … I was not able to push him back. He was able to hit a clean ball all the time, so [I] was surviving. A lot of surviving moments during that match.”
For Nadal, it was a matter of weathering the storm, being the more patient, tactical player. It also helped that Zverev faltered at important moments. His second serve was shaky, and he double-faulted eight times.
It wasn’t until the first-set tiebreaker that Nadal conjured his magic of old. After trailing 6-2 and facing four set points, he hit a pair of dazzling passing shots on a dead run, yanked well out of court. He drew even and finally won the 18-minute tiebreaker to claim the arduous opening set.
“He started the match playing amazing, honestly,” Nadal said of Zverev. “Have been a miracle, that first set. But I was there fighting and trying to find solutions all the time.”
The second set was a break-fest, highlighted by a 44-shot rally that ended with Zverev sending a backhand cross wide.
Neither could hold serve or hold sway for a long stretch. Yet again, after falling behind, Nadal battled back and was one point from forcing the tiebreaker when Zverev lost his footing, giving Nadal the point to level the set at six games all.
Earlier on Friday, Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula advanced to Sunday’s women’s doubles finals with a 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) victory over fellow Americans Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend.
With the win, the 18-year-old Gauff earned a chance to leave Roland Garros with two Grand Slam titles. She contests the women’s final Saturday against world No. 1 Iga Swiatek of Poland, the 2020 French Open champion.
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