For a second time in the last three Grand Slams, Rafael Nadal will square off against Juan Martin del Potro in the semi-finals.
Nadal’s rain-interrupted four-set win over Argentina’s No. 11 seed Diego Schwartzman on Thursday saw him become just the third man in the Open Era to reach 11 semi-finals at the same Grand Slam (alongside Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors).
Del Potro’s four-set win against Marin Cilic, which also took place over two days due to weather disruptions, saw the fifth-seeded Argentine reach the semi-finals at Roland Garros for the first time since 2009. He ended his seven-match losing streak against top-five opposition on clay.
Both winners return to the court on Friday for a highly-anticipated semi-final, with Del Potro trying to hand Nadal just his third-ever defeat in a best-of-five match on clay.
DELPO’S CLOSE CALL
When Del Potro’s 15-match winning streak came to an end at the hands of John Isner in Miami last March, the Argentine was not sure how much he would be playing on clay this season. He then decided to go to Madrid after a decent training block, but then sustained a leg injury in Rome, where he retired during his last-16 clash with David Goffin. With question marks surrounding his participation at Roland Garros, no one expected Del Potro to play, let alone do well here. He is now into his fifth career Slam semi-final, has taken his 2018 win-loss record to 28-6.
THE WEATHER FACTOR
It’s not a secret that sunny, warm conditions aid Nadal’s topspin game on clay and when it was damp and overcast on Wednesday, Schwartzman was able to capitalise on that and he pressured the Spaniard for a set and a half before rain suspended play. While Del Potro’s has a different game to Schwartzman, he too won’t mind some rain on Friday to limit the damage Nadal’s lefty topspin forehand can do against his still-not-perfect backhand (three wrist surgeries have had a lasting effect on Del Potro’s backhand). The forecast keeps changing here, and after initial reports indicated Friday would be rainy, it looks like it’s just going to be partly cloudy.
NADAL STILL GETS NERVOUS
“I am a human person,” Nadal reminded everyone in his press conference on Thursday. The 10-time Roland Garros champion still gets nervous on big occasions, which we saw against Dominic Thiem in Madrid, and against Schwartzman early in their match on Wednesday in Paris. He’s only every lost two matches at Roland Garros since he made his debut here in 2005 but he insists there are never any guarantees.
“Quarter-finals, important match for me. Was a match that maybe is a key match. So these kind of matches that can give you the chance to keep going or, for another side, you lose all the chances, no, against a tough opponent that I had problems with him in Australia and Madrid. Even if it was 6-3, 6-4, it was an uncomfortable match for me. I know it was going to be a tough match, and I was a little bit more nervous than usual,” he said of his quarterfinal against Schwartzman.
THE CLAY FACTOR
While Del Potro has a respectable 5-9 record against Nadal head-to-head, he is 0-2 against the Mallorcan on clay. This will be their first meeting on the red dirt since the Davis Cup final in 2011.
Del Potro has played just 24 matches on clay in the last five seasons. Nadal has played more matches on clay this season alone.
WHAT THE PLAYERS SAID
Nadal on whether the psychological advantage he has over his opponents ever adds pressure on his shoulders:
“It is something that I am living always with this. I don’t feel this psychological advantage. And because I don’t consider myself there and the opponents there (indicating difference in level) that’s not affecting me in a negative way. I just go on court knowing that every match is difficult and I can lose and I can win. That’s the sport. So I know if I’m playing my best then I have my chances always. My only advantage and my only goal is I know if I play my best, I gonna have good chances.”
Nadal on how he embraces the pressure:
“I don’t have any obligation to win, first thing. Second thing, if you don’t feel the pressure, it’s because you don’t love the sport. And if you don’t love the sport is better to come back home and do another thing. And that’s it. Pressure is part of the sport in general. I don’t feel the pressure now in semifinals. I feel the pressure every day, but not here. I feel the pressure in every match of the year. And here is an important event for me. Pressure is good. You are able to control that, then things can — that pressure, that adrenaline can be in a positive way. And I believe that after that stop yesterday that adrenaline and that pressure was in a positive way, no?”
Del Potro on making the semis after nearly missing the tournament through injury:
“I’m feeling so, so happy to make the right decision for play here. I am doing well. Of course I didn’t expect to get in semi-finals couple of weeks before (smiling). But now I’m here, and I’m still alive. My physical is good, and hopefully I can be ready for tomorrow.”
Del Potro on the career longevity of Nadal and Roger Federer:
“I thought that after nine years I will play a different one, not Rafa or Roger. But all my semi-finals in Grand Slam was against them. The last one in US Open I lost against Rafa. In Wimbledon I lost against Djokovic. Here with Federer. And, I mean, it’s a big challenge to play them in Grand Slam. But anyways, I think they shows how good they are at playing Grand Slams because, after 10 years, they are fighting to win these kind of tournaments. It’s amazing for the tennis, the tennis world.”
Del Potro on how confident he is in his chances against Nadal on Friday:
“Tomorrow I will try to play a match as I did in a different surface against Rafa, but he’s lefty and what I say before my match against [Albert] Ramos-Vinolas, a lefty player has advantage with me because he can find easily my backhand, and he knows what my backhand is at the moment. But anyways, I will try to do my best, to play my best tennis, and see if I can do a good match.”
4 — Del Potro will return to the top-four in the rankings on Monday, for the first time since February 2014.
6 — Del Potro is the sixth Argentinean man in history to reach multiple semi-finals at Roland Garros.
11 — Roland Garros semi-finals for Nadal, an Open Era record.
27 — Grand Slam semi-final appearances for Nadal, 5th most by a man in the Open Era.
28 — Del Potro and Nadal both recorded their 28th match wins this season. Only two men have won more matches in 2018 – Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, who have both won 34.
235 — Grand Slam match wins for Nadal, third most behind Federer (332) and Djokovic (244).
PARIS — World No. 1 Simona Halep is into the semi-finals at Roland Garros for the third time in her last five appearances and is set to take on third-ranked Garbine Muguruza, who won the title here in 2016.
Halep booked her spot in the semis with a hard-fought 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-2 victory over Angelique Kerber, while Muguruza stormed in the the last-four without dropping a set, taking out Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-1 in 70 minutes on Wednesday.
It sets up a marquee semi-final between two-time Grand Slam champion Muguruza and three-time major runner-up Halep.
Muguruza had a 0-3 record heading into her quarter-final with Sharapova but they hadn’t played since 2014, before the Spaniard experienced success at the Slams.
Halep and Kerber played arguably the best match of the season thus far at the Australian Open earlier this year and their quarter-final on Wednesday — in heavy damp conditions — also did not disappoint.
WHAT THE PLAYERS SAID
Halep on why she celebrated her win against Kerber by pointing her finger to her head:
“It was really about the mental. And also physical, for sure, but mental I was strong. And after losing that set, when I came back it was a little bit tough, but I stayed there. I stayed focused. I never gave up. So I think that’s why I won today. My head won it.”
Halep on how she balances staying relaxed during the Slams while also being intense on the court:
“The experience. I think it’s really important, and so many years I played at this level. Now it feels normal a little bit. Feels like I’m used to it. Of course it’s special every time to play a semis in Grand Slam. Here also in Paris, I like this place, so I feel good. I feel cool. And I’m expecting tomorrow a tough one, but I’m expecting also to give everything I have again to take my chance.”
Halep on the challenge of facing Muguruza:
“She’s playing fast with everyone. So doesn’t matter who is playing against. She does her game. So I have just to stay strong, to try to make her uncomfortable on court, and to try to play my game. It’s not many things, like, to discuss about this match. It’s a style that has everything. She’s a great player. She was in this position. She won this tournament. So tomorrow is going to be a big challenge for me.”
Muguruza on gaining experience at the Slams:
“Well, maybe before I was holding more my breath. Now I just find moments to enjoy, moments to be serious, moments to train. You know, I kind of learned with experience, you know, as always, how to manage these long tournaments better. I think, yeah, I’m doing it more and more.”
Muguruza on whether she feels like a favourite against Halep in this semi-final:
“I don’t feel I’m favourite for this match, because she’s played better than I have this year. She loves clay. She loves Roland Garros. She’s shown it. It’s a great match. It’s a great semi-finals. I’m motivated, and that’s it. That’s all.”
TOP SPOT ON THE LINE
The winner of this Halep-Muguruza clash will not only reach the Roland Garros final but will walk away with the world No. 1 spot when the tournament wraps up. Muguruza is not too preoccupied about the prospect of unseating Halep from the summit.
“I heard about it just now that the one who wins will be No. 1. But I don’t give it too much attention,” said Muguruza, who held the top spot for four weeks last season. “In the past few years, I used to take this into account, and I shouldn’t have taken it so much to heart. So now I don’t have it in mind constantly. If I make it all, it’s very well. Otherwise, there will be more opportunities.”
HISTORY ON MUGURUZA’S SIDE
The Spaniard is 3-1 head-to-head against Halep, with their last meeting being a 6-1, 6-0 victory for Muguruza in the Cincinnati final in 2017. Halep won their only previous encounter on clay though, in Stuttgart in 2015.
Muguruza has been ruthless this tournament, dropping just 20 games en route to the semis. She lost her serve five times but it’s worth noting that Halep has created a whopping number of 60 break points on her opponents’ serve this fortnight.
PRESSURE’S ON HALEP
Halep insisted in her press conference that there is no pressure on her shoulders entering this semi-final but the fact remains that the Romanian is chasing a maiden Grand Slam title and will be itching to erase the painful memories from her defeat in last year’s final. For Muguruza, she’s been sailing through and playing freely, in a manner that makes it seem like a third major trophy for her would be a mere bonus.
STEPPING UP AT THE SLAMS
Muguruza’s ability to flip a switch and elevate her level at the majors continues to baffle. Since the start of her title run at Roland Garros in 2016, Muguruza has posted a 32-6 (84.2%) record in Grand Slam matches.
By contrast her win-loss numbers away from the majors are 55-35 (61.1%).
It’s the first time either player has made the last-four in Paris and the two friends are looking forward to their third career showdown against one another.
This is the first all-American French Open semi-final since 2002, when Serena Williams defeated Jennifer Capriati en route to the title.
Keys made it to the semis with a straight-sets win over Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva while reigning US Open champion Stephens eased past Russia’s Daria Kasatkina.
This time last year, Stephens was still sidelined with a foot injury that her walking around in crutches and Keys was coming off a second wrist surgery. Since then, they made remarkable returns as they both feature in a second semi-final in the last three Slams.
WHAT THE PLAYERS SAID
Stephens on how she handles facing a good friend like Keys:
“It’s the same thing as always. When we get on the court, it’s time to compete. But before that, we are not going to be weird and awkward and make it, like, weird for each other. Now I just have to go find her, because I need to tell her some juicy stuff. I just went and searched for her in the training room. I think everything will be normal. And then when we get on the court, it’s time to compete. It’s go time. Until then, we’re the same girls as always.”
Stephens on whether she feels she tough to beat at the moment:
“Sure, yeah, I guess. I’m playing well, in a good space. I like clay. I mean, the court suits my game pretty well. Like I said, you have to just take your opportunities when you get them, and it’s just match by match, basically.”
Keys on how she’s finally finding her footing on clay:
“I think it was still kind of a confusion in the head up until about a week ago (smiling). Obviously, I grew up in the States where we don’t really have red clay. Even playing on clay, it was green clay, which is much faster and much different. So my first real experience on red clay, it was when I was 16 or 17. It’s been a little bit longer for me to get used to it, but I feel like every year I get more comfortable.”
Keys on how being “nice” never held her back:
“I have actually been told quite often that I’ll never win or do well because I’m too nice of a person and I just don’t have it. I think that’s a load of crap, but, you know, it’s just me (smiling). I don’t think you have to be mean in order to win matches. I think there’s a difference between being intense and wanting it and fighting and just not being nice, so that’s something that I have always stayed true to. I’m not ever going to try to be a person that isn’t nice, so that feels more authentic to me and, you know, I think I’m still doing okay. Well, trying to be as nice as possible.”
Keys on her upcoming semi-final against Stephens:
“I’m going to have to be the one to try to open up the court and go for my shots. I obviously lost to Sloane at the US Open, but, you know, I feel like on clay it’s a little bit of a different match-up.”
CAN MADISON FIND THE KEY AGAINST SLOANE?
Keys is 0-4 in sets against Stephens in previous meetings, with the latter claiming wins over her friend on the hard courts of Miami in 2015 and US Open in 2017.
The American pair have contrasting styles, with Stephens’ game based on her athleticism and ability to get many balls back, while also turning defence into offence fairly quickly. Keys is all-out attack. She is less comfortable on the clay compared to Stephens and can get rattled when opponents make her run too much.
Keys will have to be patient in this semi-final, and only pull the trigger when she’s ready to finish off the point.
AMERICANS CAN CLAY
Many Americans struggle on the red dirt because of the lack of red clay courts in the United States but several players have managed to master the surface nonetheless. Serena Williams is a three-time French Open champion, Jennifer Capriati won in 2001, and the legendary Chris Evert retired with a 94.5% winning record on clay, triumphing seven times at Roland Garros.
It looks like the younger generation of Americans are also getting comfortable sliding and grinding on the dirt. Stephens has made the second week in Paris in five of her seven appearances and Keys is slowly coming to terms with the surface.
KEYS’ MAJOR FORM
Keys has reached the quarter-finals in her last three consecutive Grand Slams as the 23-year-old continues to make strides ahead at the highest level. She has now made the semis at three of the four majors with Wimbledon being the only Slam where she hasn’t featured in the final-four yet.
Keys has reached the second week in nine of her last 11 Slams.
She is one of two semi-finalists — alongside Garbine Muguruza — who are yet to drop a set this fortnight in Paris.
SPRING OF SLOANE
Just like she wowed the tennis world with her summer last year, Stephens is enjoying a strong spring that started with her winning the title in Miami. She made the last-16 in Madrid and Rome and now has a chance to make the French Open final.
A win on Thursday would move Stephens to No. 4 in the rankings. The last American to hold a top-five ranking other than Venus or Serena Williams was Lindsay Davenport in April 2006.
Following this tournament, Stephens will become the 44th woman in WTA history to cross the $10 million career prize money threshold.