Rafael Nadal is bracing himself for yet another tough battle against Austrian Dominic Thiem when the pair face off for a fourth time this season in the Roland Garros semi-finals on Friday.
After reaching a record 10th French Open semi-final on Wednesday courtesy of a retirement from his fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, Nadal told reporters in Paris all the reasons Thiem has been a rising force in the men’s game.
“He’s a very good player. He hits the ball very hard. He’s very powerful on both sides. Forehand, backhand, serve. These weapons are quite good. He steps in the court. He has huge potential to tap, and he can hit the ball very hard. He doesn’t give you a lot of options. I will have to play deep balls. You have to put him in uncomfortable situations,” said Nadal, who beat Thiem in Barcelona and Madrid but lost to the Austrian in Rome last month.
“In Rome it was not a good day for me. I was not in a position to play well the way I wanted to. He put me in a difficult situation, so it’s up to me to avoid being put in uncomfortable situations.”
Nadal has dropped just 22 games en route to the semi-finals – the fewest he has ever lost at Roland Garros on his way to the last-four.
Asked if he would rather have been tested more this tournament ahead of his Thiem clash, Nadal said: “Is always the same, no? If it’s too much, is too much. If it’s less, is less. I am in semi-finals. That’s all. I am in semi-finals and with very positive feelings. I played well all the matches here. The rest of the things, you never know. So it’s difficult to say. Better, worse? I want to be in that position. That’s all,” said the 31-year-old.
The Spaniard leads the tour with 41 wins this season, and also owns a tour-leading 22 match victories on clay in 2017.
Carreno Busta, who was playing his first career Grand Slam quarter-final, pulled a left abdominal muscle while serving at 2-5 in the first set and was forced to retire from the match three games later.
Why is Nadal such a good wind player?— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) June 7, 2017
"Is about accept the mistakes and accept the tough things that can happen during the match," he says.
Nadal is just the fifth man in the Open Era to reach 10 semi-finals at the same Grand Slam. Both him and Thiem are yet to drop a set this fortnight and their showdown on Friday is being described as a virtual final.
The 23-year-old Thiem has made it to his second consecutive Roland Garros semi-final by avenging his defeat to Novak Djokovic, who had beaten the Austrian in the last-four here in 2016.
Thiem, seeded No6 in Paris this fortnight, delivered a knockout punch to the no-longer defending champion Djokovic 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0 in the quarters on Wednesday.
“He has really heavy spin. You know, he can also play very quick. He’s got an all-around game. For clay courts, he’s a tough player to play against,” said Djokovic of Thiem.
There are 127 matches played in a Grand Slam singles main draw with millions of possible combinations of match-ups, yet somehow Timea Bacsinszky and Jelena Ostapenko share the same birthday and will face off on the day of their birthday in the Roland Garros semi-finals on Thursday, June 8, 2017.
That is one mind-boggling coincidence.
Even nuttier… If Ostapenko wins the title, it would be her very first tour-level title triumph. The last player to win their first tour-level trophy at a Grand Slam was Guga Kuerten. When did he achieve that? On June, 8, 1997 – the day Ostapenko was born! (via @fiercetennis on Twitter, heard through @benrothenberg).
Crazy twists of fate aside, the fact that we have a 19-year-old in the semi-finals of Roland Garros for the first time since Ana Ivanovic in 2007 is great news.
The stories developing this fortnight on the women’s side are really interesting if you’re following closely.
Ostapenko, a fiery, quirky Latvian teenager who is not on her best surface but has a big, aggressive game, is the second-youngest player in the top-47 (Ana Konjuh is six months younger). A couple of her fellow 1997-born players have perhaps had better results sooner than her at the Slams but she has caught up and gone even further. Prior to this season, she had played six Grand Slam main draws and lost in the first or second round in all of them.
In Melbourne last January, she made the Australian Open third round and she’s now in the Roland Garros semi-finals. That is just remarkable progress.
Anything in particular you need to know about Ostapenko? She likes ballroom dancing and her favourite dance is the Samba. “I actually think because of the music, because some really nice songs fit Samba,” she tells us.
She certainly needed quick footwork to handle the terrible wind that wreaked havoc on her quarter-final with Caroline Wozniacki on Tuesday. Those ballroom dancing classes sure came in handy.
Meanwhile Bacsinszky is continuing with her dream return to the sport. The Swiss had quit tennis, worked in a restaurant at a hotel, but returned with a bang, making the semis at Roland Garros two years ago. She was playing her third consecutive French Open quarter-final on Tuesday and is now into her second semi in three years.
She finds the fact that she’ll be playing Ostapenko on the day of their birthdays fairly amusing.
“It’s pretty funny. I think it’s pretty cool, though. I saw her in the gym just right after our matches today, and so we both said, like, mutually to each other, Well done. We hugged each other, because, I mean, she’s a really nice girl,” said Bacsinszky, who is eight years older than Ostapenko.
Rain canceled the men’s quarter-finals on Tuesday. Here’s what you may have missed from the women’s action.
Winners cracked by Jelena Ostapenko vs. Wozniacki on clay this year:— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) June 6, 2017
Roland Garros: 38
10 – years since a teenager last made the semi-finals at Roland Garros prior to Ostapenko’s run this fortnight.
“Players are ready. Please sit as quickly as you can.”
— A hilarious Timea Bacsinszky pretends she’s an umpire for a second as she waits for reporters to take their seats for her press conferences.
— The brilliant follow up to Bacsinszky’s line from press conference moderator Eleanor Preston.
“You mean in the ballroom dancing? No, of course not. I was just doing some, like, Latin championships in ballroom dancing. And I think the courts I play are much bigger.”
— Ostapenko when asked if her ballroom dancing competitions as a youngster helped prepare her for the big stage in tennis.
“Stan works a lot. He falls, he gets up. He falls, he gets up. But recently he has decided not to fall.”
— Bacsinszky on Stan Wawrinka
Alize Lim attempts to interview Rafael Nadal
Pablo Carreno Busta is well aware of what he’s up against when he takes on an in-form and healthy Rafael Nadal in the Roland Garros quarter-finals on Tuesday. It is by far the toughest challenge in tennis today.
Nadal has lost just two out of 101 best-of-five matches on clay throughout his entire career. That stat alone sounds discouraging. But not for the 25-year-old Carreno Busta, who is having his best season to date and is playing his maiden Grand Slam quarter-final.
“If I think that I don’t have chances, I will not play. So for sure I think I have chances,” the Spaniard told reporters at the French Open.
“Is really difficult, because Rafa is maybe the best player in this surface of the history, and he’s playing really good, but I will try. I’m playing good. I’m with a lot of confidence.”
Carreno Busta has every reason to feel confident. He has won 27 matches in 2017 (fourth-most on tour), including a title run on the clay of Estoril, a runner-up showing in Rio, and a semi-final run at Indian Wells.
McEnroe to Carreno Busta before Nadal match: Think small, set yourself some achievable goals, like getting two games per set (via Eurosport) pic.twitter.com/m86eppL9qk— Ilya Ryvlin (@ryvlin) June 6, 2017
His trip to the Roland Garros quarters means he will move back into the top eight in the ATP Race to London standings, solidifying his position as one of the best players on tour so far this season.
Carreno Busta is 0-3 against Nadal head-to-head but he took a set off him in Doha last year. They haven’t faced off since the Rio Olympics last summer.
Carlos Moya, Nadal’s coach, has seen a significant change in Carreno Busta’s game over the past 18 months or so.
“Even last year I realised he was more aggressive, that’s what I thought when I was coaching Milos (Raonic), we played against him. But I followed him throughout the year and I’ve realised that he’s more aggressive now than he used to be,” said Moya, a Roland Garros champion in 1998.
“Before he was just high intensity but not really many winners, but now I feel that if he has an easy ball that ball doesn’t come back. That’s the way tennis is played nowadays, that’s how it works. It took him a while to realise but now he’s doing that very well, probably his team and coach are helping him a lot and he’s a dangerous player.”
Carreno Busta comes off as a laid back character off the court. He’s always smiling, has a funny personality in press conferences and is enjoying the big stage now that he’s reached it.
“You are a very good tennis player, but not so good at match points,” a journalist joked with him after his narrow win over Milos Raonic in the fourth round that required seven match points before he sealed the deal.
“Thank you,” Carreno Busta quipped back with a grin.
It was Carreno Busta’s first top-10 win, ending a 16-match losing streak against such opposition.
When he was asked if he had his eyes on the ATP Finals in London at the end of the year, now that he’s in the top-eight in the Race, he Gijon-native said: “London (smiling). Nice city. But I think is not a real goal to be in London. Maybe in a few months I hope that we continue thinking about this, or you continue thinking about this. And we’ll see. But at the moment, I just thinking about Rafa,” he admitted.
Carreno Busta made his Davis Cup debut for Spain last year and team captain Conchita Martinez had nothing but praise for him.
“He has a good character, he’s laid back but also goes for his shots,” said Martinez. “I think he’s believing more in his possibilities at the moment. He’s breaking through so many things right now. To be here and playing Rafa is going to be amazing I think. He was looking up to him and now he gets to play him.”
Carreno Busta has spent almost four more hours on court this fortnight in Paris compared to Nadal, who has blasted through his opening four rounds in sensational fashion, dropping a total of just 20 games.
“For me, Rafa is the best player on this surface. He’s a really good friend. So it will be a really special match for me. I will try to enjoy this match and learn a lot. I will play against the best. And then we’ll see. Maybe I play and I lose easy or maybe I play and I win easy. You never know,” said Carreno Busta.
Moya feels Nadal’s form right now in Paris is the “perfect situation” as the Mallorcan attempts to become the first man to reach 10 semi-finals at Roland Garros.
“It hasn’t surprised me (how well Nadal is playing),” says Moya.
“This is probably the best tennis he’s playing since the beginning of the year, now he has the confidence of all these matches that he won since January. In January he was practicing very well, he was healthy, but he needed those matches that take you to 100 per cent of your potential.
“Now he’s not there, he’s close to that. It’s the perfect situation for us. If you asked me two months ago how would I like to get here I would tell you the way he’s playing now.”