Rafael Nadal is one win away from claiming a 10th Roland Garros title after he cruised into his 10th final in Paris with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 success over sixth-seeded Dominic Thiem on Friday to set up a showdown with Stan Wawrinka.
Nadal is just the third man in history to make 10 appearances in the final at one Grand Slam event after Bill Tilden (10 US Open finals) and Roger Federer (10 Wimbledon finals) and Sunday will be his 22nd appearance in a major final.
Thiem and Nadal were facing off in a fourth consecutive tournament and entered the contest leading the tour in most number of match wins on clay this season (22).
And while many expected the 23-year-old Austrian to be a tough test for Nadal, who lost to Thiem in Rome two weeks ahead of the tournament – the semi-final was by no means a tight affair.
“I think to play Rafa on clay in French Open in a final is probably the biggest challenge you can have in tennis. He’s the best player ever on clay. As you say, he’s going for his 10th Roland Garros, so it’s something really impressive, something tough,” said Wawrinka.
“It’s for sure gonna be really difficult. But again, in the end of the day, it’s the final. The pressure is on both players. No one go on the court thinking he has no pressure. We both want to win the title, and we both gonna give it all on the court.”
Thiem broke Nadal in the opening game of the match but the Spaniard responded immediately. Nadal ran away with the set in 45 minutes but found himself in trouble early in the second, facing two break points in his first service game.
Nadal saved both and got an opportunity of his own to break the following game thanks to some brilliant footwork and a forehand winner. The nine-time champion got the break to inch ahead. He was stepping inside the court, dictating with his renowned topspin forehand.
The Mallorcan leapt to a two-sets-to-one lead and broke three times to move ahead 5-0 in the third. Despite missing an overhead to start the sixth game and facing a break point, Nadal closed out the match, in two hours and seven minutes to put himself in a position to fight for a 15th Grand Slam title.
Nadal is yet to drop a set this fortnight, and is 15-3 against Wawrinka head-to-head (5-1 on clay).
“It’s true I have been playing a great event, but Stan is playing unbelievable. It’s going to be a very, very tough final. I watched his match, he’s hitting the ball really hard,” Nadal told Cedric Pioline on court.
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Stan Wawrinka became the oldest Roland Garros finalist in 44 years after defeating Andy Murray 6-7 (3), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-1 in the semi-finals on Friday.
The Swiss, who won the French Open title in 2015, dug deep during the four-hour 34-minute affair to get the better of the world No1 and avenge his loss to Murray at the same stage last year.
There were shades of his 2015 triumph as Wawrinka stepped up physically and mentally to extinguish the Murray challenge.
He paid tribute to the Paris crowd that supported him throughout the marathon showdown.
The first set was a tug of war and the pair were on even ground until Wawrinka drew first blood in game eight. He ran down a Murray drop shot, pulled off some great reflexes before finding the forehand pass for a break and a 5-3 lead.
His advantage was brief though as Wawrinka failed to serve out the set, gifting Murray the break back as the set headed to a breaker.
There was more Wawrinka magic in the tiebreak as he once again won a contest with Murray at the net.
But it was the world No1 who kept his focus to clinch a 68-minute opening set.
Once again, it was Wawrinka who made the first move in the second set. He had chances in the fifth game but Murray squeezed out a service hold in a nine-minute game for 3-2. Wawrinka got his break though two games later and consolidated for a 5-3 lead.
The Swiss got his first set point on the Murray serve in game nine and leveled the match with a powerful return winner.
Wawrinka won his seventh game on the trot to open up a 3-0 gap in the third set, as he started to unleash his backhand with maximum effect. Murray finally stopped the bleeding the following game to hold, then got a break point for a chance to strike back. And the Scot was back in it as he out-rallied Wawrinka to cut his deficit to 2-3.
But the 2015 champion had other ideas. He broke again but the break-fest continued as Murray pegged Wawrinka back one more time.
Murray finally held serve to even the set at 4-all.
A horrendous volley from Wawrinka saw the No3 seed fall behind 0-40 and Murray broke for a 6-5 lead on his second opportunity.
The 30-year-old managed to serve it out for a two-sets-to-one advantage over Wawrinka as the match clock passed the three-hour mark.
Both players upped the ante in the seventh game of the fourth set. Murray unleashed a forehand passing shot winner to put pressure on Wawrinka.
But Wawrinka fired up the crowd with a blistering down-the-line forehand pass to retaliate and hold for 4-3.
The set went to a tiebreak and Wawrinka sent the crowd roaring as he forced a decider with a thunderous forehand return winner.
Wawrinka raced to a 5-0 lead in the fifth but missed a volley to get broken while serving for the match. But that only delayed the inevitable as Murray sent a forehand long to face two match points on his own serve.
And the Swiss sealed it the only way he knows how, with a signature backhand down-the-line winner to reach the fourth Grand Slam final of his career. He is 3-0 in major finals.
“He played obviously better in that (fifth) set. I lost a little bit of speed on my serve which wasn’t allowing me to dictate many points on my own serve. Yeah, that was it,” said Murray, who was a runner-up in Paris last season.
“I mean, he obviously hit some greats shots in the fifth, but, you know, I didn’t keep the score close enough to sort of put him under pressure.”
Murray had a 0-30 half chance when he was down 0-3 in the fifth. He feels a break there could have perhaps turned things around for him but then the set went away from his grasp way too fast.
“Physically I didn’t feel my best at the end. It is more like I didn’t have enough weight on my shot at the end of the match to, you know, to put him under any real pressure,” admits Murray.
“So a lot of the points he was dictating from the middle of the court, and I was sort of retrieving and allowing him to pretty much hit the shots that he wants. And against a shot-maker, someone who hits the ball as big as him, that’s obviously not ideal.
“Whether that was down to me being a little bit slower in the fifth set or whatever it was, it was not a successful tactic, hitting the ball short in the middle of the court. Didn’t work,” he added sarcastically with a hint of a smile.
Despite the disappointment of defeat, Murray is pleased with how he has picked up his form this tournament. According to the Scot, he came into Paris “playing garbage”, but has managed to defeat high-quality players like Juan Martin del Potro and Kei Nishikori en route to the semi-finals at Roland Garros.
“I’m proud of the tournament I had. I did well considering. I was one tiebreak away from getting to the final when I came in really struggling. So I have to be proud of that,” said the three-time Grand Slam champion.
“Maybe the lack of matches hurt me a little bit in the end today. That was a very high intensity match. A lot of long points. When you haven’t been playing loads, you know, over four, four-and-a-half hours, that can catch up to you a little bit. So I only have myself to blame for that, for the way I played coming into the tournament.
“But I turned my form around really, really well and ended up having a good tournament, all things considered.”
Three years ago, Simona Halep was a 22-year-old making her first appearance in a Grand Slam final against Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros. She lost in three sets.
On Saturday, Halep is no longer a rookie. She’s the experienced favourite, taking on 20-year-old first-time major finalist Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open title match.
Victory on Saturday would give Halep not just a maiden Slam trophy, but also the No1 spot. She would become the first ever Romanian woman to top the world rankings and just the second to claim a major behind her manager, Virginia Ruzici who won Roland Garros in 1978.
The 25-year-old’s popularity in Romania is unrivaled. It is both a blessing and a curse as she carries the weight of expectation on her shoulders everywhere she goes.
Her legions of fans show up at every tournament; their ‘SI-MO-NA’ chants echoing through the world’s biggest stadiums.
She may have struggled with pressure in the past, but this version of Halep is embracing it and thriving under it.
“Of course I’m nervous, but it’s nice feeling,” she told reporters in Paris on Friday.
“Today I’m just living the day, and we will see what is going to be happen tomorrow. I’m not thinking about anything else.
Three years ago it was, like, 50 people around me, my family, friends, everyone. So now I will stay with my team, same routine, same things, and I just want to get ready for tomorrow. I’m not thinking that is the final. I’m thinking just that it’s a normal match. But of course, I take the pressure because I like it.”
She finished her pre-final media commitments then went out to sit in the Court Philippe Chatrier stands to watch part of the semi-final between Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. Ahead of the biggest match of her career so far, Halep is hanging out at the tennis and treating Friday like any other day.
“Of course, this match is really important, and I will not hide the heaviness that it has,” she admits. “Of course it’s going to be a great thing if I can win tomorrow. But I would like not to think too much, because put more pressure.
“I say always that I play well with the pressure, but now I don’t need it. I just take it like a big day, a big match. And definitely I’m ready for it, because I won many matches until now.
“So I have also the mentality to play this final. We will see tomorrow, but I will give my best to make happy more people at home…
“Since Virginia, no one won a Grand Slam (in Romania). So it’s going to be a big thing if I will do tomorrow.”
Halep will not have to make too many adjustments to the game plan she had against her previous opponent Karolina Pliskova, who is a big-hitter like Ostapenko.
But Ostapenko has youth and abandon on her side. She’s the first ever Latvian to reach a Grand Slam final and has blasted through the draw hitting a whopping 245 winners in six matches. That’s an average of 40.8 winners per match.
She’s the youngest woman to reach a Grand Slam final since Caroline Wozniacki was runner-up at the 2009 US Open.
Ostapenko, a former Wimbledon junior champion, had never won a main draw match at Roland Garros prior to this fortnight. The extent of her experience at the French Open is a total of seven matches.
She also has history on the line as she would be the first Latvian to win a major.
But none of that has weighed down on the fiery youngster so far.
“It’s really nice. Yesterday a lot of calls from Latvia, even the president of the country called. So was really nice the attention from my country,” she said cheerfully on Friday.
“He actually called my mom. So that’s what she told me. I mean, because nobody knows my phone.”
Ostapenko has been coached by her mother Jelena Jakovleva all her life but she started working with former world No14 Anabel Medina Garrigues at the beginning of this clay season in April.
The Spaniard, who is still a doubles player, did not change Ostapenko’s game but she has been helping her harness that sheer power and make better decisions on the court.
Television stats have shown that Ostapenko’s average forehand speed is faster than Murray’s and it is that power that has carried her through the draw these two weeks.
“Since I probably started to play tennis, I had a possibility to play aggressive,” said the Latvian world No47. “So I was always trying to play aggressive and that’s my game style. But yesterday when I found out that my forehand was faster (than Murray), I was a little bit surprised.”
She’s surprised herself, and the world, with her run on clay – her least favourite surface – at Roland Garros, and she feels she’s got nothing to lose at this point.
“I’m already in the finals so I’m going to go out there and enjoy the match,” says Ostapenko.