Rafael Nadal overcame his first real test at this year’s Roland Garros, beating 19 year-old Jannik Sinner 7-6(4), 6-4, 6-1 to reach the Roland Garros semi-final for a record-extending 13th time. After a chaotic day on Court Philippe-Chatrier with five matches scheduled, the 1.26am finish marked the latest ever night at Roland Garros.
Although Sinner’s name has been swirling in tennis circles for a while, his inexperience is still clear. This meeting marked just his sixth match against a top 10 opponent and his first against a member of the big three. While most young players usually have the opportunity to first test their strength against one of the elite at smaller events or in the early rounds of a slam, Sinner was immediately beckoned into Nadal’s arena.
In the early exchanges, Sinner’s inexperience translated as fearlessness and he demonstrated the clean, violent ballstriking that has quickly propelled him towards the top of the sport. As he confidently navigated his own service games, it was Nadal who was under pressure on serve. Sinner’s early intensity eventually yielded the first break of serve deep into the opening set, with Sinner serving for the set at 6-5.
But Sinner learnt that bravery can sometimes be foolish. As Nadal began to inspect his backhand wing with a series of deep, heavy forehands, what followed was a series of breathless cross-court exchanges from Sinner’s backhand to Nadal’s forehand as both players worked the other’s strength.
Sinner appeared determined to show he was unafraid of the Nadal forehand, but he fed it too many times and he eventually paid for it as he played Nadal’s biggest strength into a rhythm. Nadal finished the game with two searing down-the-line forehands. After breaking serve, he took the first set on a tiebreak.
A positive sign from Sinner was how quickly he recovered from such a dispiriting end to the first set, breaking early in the second to establish a 3-1 lead. However, Nadal responded immediately, levelling at 3-3 before eventually breaking again at 4-4. The third set was decided with little resistance, Nadal breaking serve three times to see out the victory. After contesting his 100th match at Roland Garros, Nadal’s record now stands at 98-2.
“Sinner is a very, very young talent with a lot of power, great shots,” said Nadal. “The conditions here were a little bit difficult because he was hitting every ball very hard, for me it was difficult. The ball, with this court, the spin is not there. For me, it was difficult to pull him out of the position.
“I think in the third set, I did it much better and I finished being much more aggressive. That’s the only way. So, I’m just very happy to be in the semi-finals again in Roland Garros. No doubt it’s the most important place and, for me, the most beautiful place.
Afterwards, Nadal was asked about the late finish. He said that the cold, windy conditions were particularly hazardous.
“Of course, it is not an ideal finish, a match at 1.30 in the morning. But the problem is the weather … Honestly, it is very, very cold to play tennis, no? I know football players play under these conditions, but it is a little bit different. They are all the time moving. We stop, we come back, we stop on the changeovers. It is a sport that you are stopped in a lot of moments, no? I think it is a little bit dangerous for the body to play with these very heavy conditions.”
Nadal will move on to face Diego Schwartzman in the semi-final, a rematch of their Rome quarter-final in which Schwartzman broke Nadal’s serve five times en route to a convincing 6-2 7-5 win.
“Of course, [it] is a challenge,” Nadal said. “When you lost to somebody, it is because he’s playing well. Today he played an amazing match against one of the best players of the world [Dominic Thiem], without a doubt, especially on this surface. He’s coming with big confidence, no? Two weeks in a row… He’s in the final in Rome, he’s in the semi-finals here. He beat me there. It’s a plus of confidence for him. I know that.”
Earlier, 19 year-old Iga Swiatek backed up her win over Simona Halep with a dominant 6-3, 6-1 display against Martina Trevisan, winning 11 of the last 12 games of the match from 1-3 down in the first set. Swiatek will face another qualifier, Nadia Podoroska, in the semi-final after her surprise win over No 3 seed Elina Svitolina.
“I just knew that I’m not going to play as perfect as with Simona,” said Swiatek. “On my level, it’s impossible to keep that level of consistency. I just knew that I’m going to make some mistakes at the beginning because of the conditions. I just stayed, like, really down-to-earth and really positive. I wanted to be aggressive from the beginning so I can lead on court. I did that pretty well.”