PARIS (AP) — Rafael Nadal was locked in a tight, compelling and lengthy French Open semifinal Friday when his opponent, third-seeded Alexander Zverev, ran to his right to chase a shot and twisted his right ankle. Zverev crumpled to the ground, wailing in agony and clutching at his lower leg.
His black outfit, arms and legs caked with rust-coloured clay, Zverev was helped up by a trainer, then taken away from the court in a wheelchair. Minutes later, Zverev came back out onto Court Philippe Chatrier on crutches, his right shoe removed, and conceded the match, unable to continue.
The sudden end to a contest that was 3 hours old but not even through two full sets allowed Nadal to become, on his 36th birthday, the second-oldest men’s finalist in French Open history. Now he will try to become the oldest champion at a tournament he’s already won a record 13 times.
“Being in the final of Roland Garros is a dream, without a doubt,” Nadal said during an on-court interview, then revealed he had seen Zverev crying in a small room in the stadium.
“Very tough, no? And very sad for him, honestly, no?” Nadal told the full house of 15,000 spectators who had loudly tried to encourage him throughout the match, chanting “Ra-fa!” repeatedly.
With the pitter-patter of rain audible against the closed retractable roof at Court Philippe Chatrier, Nadal emerged to claim a tight-as-can-be, draining first set that lasted 1 1/2 hours by a 7-6 (8) score. The second set also was headed to a tiebreaker after another 1 1/2 hours when Zverev tumbled behind the baseline and lost a point that allowed Nadal to hold serve for 6-all.
A trainer came out to attend to him, and Nadal walked around the net to check on Zverev, too. After Zverev returned to the court to say he would need to retire from the match, he shook the chair umpire’s hand and then hugged Nadal.
Nadal has been dealing with chronic pain in his left foot and was coming off a pair of victories that each lasted more than 4 hours — including his quarterfinal against defending champion Novak Djokovic that ended at 1:15 am on Wednesday — but showed no signs of age, injury or fatigue against the 25-year-old Zverev.
In addition to bidding for a 14th trophy from the French Open, Nadal can claim his 22nd Grand Slam title to add to the men’s record he already holds after his triumph at the Australian Open in January. Djokovic and Roger Federer are tied at 20.
There’s also this on the line for Nadal in Sunday’s final against No. 8 Casper Ruud of Norway or No. 20 Marin Cilic of Croatia: It would be the first time the Spaniard ever has won the first two legs of the calendar-year Grand Slam.
Cilic won the 2014 U.S. Open; Ruud has never been to a major final.
Zverev was the runner-up at the U.S. Open two years ago and won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.
“I know how much he’s fighting to win a Grand Slam, but for the moment, he was very unlucky,” Nadal said. “The only thing that I am sure is he is going to win not one — much more than one. So I wish him all the best and a very fast recovery.”
Maybe, just maybe, the pristine conditions in what was transformed into an indoor arena helped Zverev bring out his best for stretches on Friday, compiling nearly twice as many winners as Nadal, 40-21.
There was no wind to worry about, no sunlight or shadows, no energy-draining heat or cold. After two nervous-looking misses to lose the initial two points, Zverev settled in, pushing his 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) frame and strength into every shot. Most sliced through the still air and alit precisely where he wanted.
There was little subtlety to his approach. Not a lot of finesse, either. Pure power, essentially. And it worked rather well, permitting Zverev to stake himself to a 3-1 lead after 19 minutes in large part because he accumulated seven winners before Nadal delivered a single one.
When Zverev did try a drop shot in the match’s eighth game, it was merely so-so, and Nadal not only reached it but ripped a down-the-line backhand passing winner. A few points later, Zverev set up a break point for Nadal by double-faulting, eliciting a roar of approval and applause from thousands, the sort of cheer-for-a-mistake generally looked down upon in tennis circles.
Things would get worse from there for Zverev in that game. His racket flew out of his hand and landed behind him after one wild swing mistakenly sent a ball zipping past the chair umpire until it landed 10 feet wide of the court. Later, an errant backhand let Nadal break for the first time, making it 4-all and sending red-and-yellow Spanish flags flapping in the stands.
In the opening tiebreaker, Zverev began brilliantly, taking a 6-2 lead to earn four set points.
On the first, Nadal hit a wide-swinging 113 mph (183 kph) ace. On the second, Zverev flubbed a volley and rolled his eyes. On the third, Nadal sprinted to his left, ending up wide of the doubles alley, to somehow conjure up a cross-court forehand passing winner at an unbelievable angle. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. He probably had no business getting to Zverev’s sharp volley, let alone fashioning that short of response.
And yet, that is what Nadal does, so often, to so many opponents. He hangs in there, he never takes a point off, he plays each shot as if it might be his very last.
Been that way since he was a teen. Why stop now that he’s in his mid-30s?
Nadal then saved Zverev’s fourth set point with the help of a drop shot. When it was Nadal’s turn to press for the set, he finally sealed it with a down-the-line forehand passing winner, then held his follow-through pose for a moment while staring into the stands.
The second set was filled with service breaks — each man had five on the afternoon — and, in the end, the denouement was as anticlimactic as could be.