In the bays of the Porte d’Auteuil, everyone pretended to believe it. Ahead of their semi-final on Friday, October 9, there was supposedly some reason to hope for a balanced fight between Rafael Nadal and Diego Schwartzman. First, the Argentinian (14e world) had swept the Spaniard three weeks ago in the quarter-finals in Rome (6-2, 7-5). Then, in 2018, at Roland Garros already, he had seriously shaken him, before a providential rain came to the rescue of the Mallorcan, who had escaped with a simple warning (4-6, 6-3 , 6-2, 6-2). Finally, this year, in an autumnal and wet edition, the playing conditions put, it was said, the two players on an equal footing.
But, as is often the Porte d’Auteuil, everyone has put their finger in the eye. When he landed on the half-sunny Philippe-Chatrier court for his 13e semi-final in his modernized garden, King Nadal had a drag as heavy as the clay of this fortnight: twelve titles, 100 games for only two defeats… and none after reaching the last four. Friday, like 98 others before him, Diego Schwartzman suffered the relentless law of the world number two (6-3, 6-3, 7-6).
“The most complicated conditions”
Tuesday, in the quarterfinals, the Argentinian slugger had knocked out world number 3 Dominic Thiem, after 5:08 a.m. of a five-set chess game. This time he failed to expropriate the “Owner of the premises”, to use his formula. On a central court where the 1,000 lucky people of the day had flocked, “el Peque” (“the little one”, 1.68 m) lacked a bit of everything: first balls, power, time to s’ organize, in short, solutions, he who compensates for his handicap in the service by a formidable sense of reading and anticipation.
After a first service game that lasted fourteen minutes, Nadal set the tone for the game: if he wanted to win, Diego Schwartzman would have to resist the exchange throughout. During three sets, the Spaniard applied without forcing, making a clean copy, especially in service, which had played tricks on him in Rome.
Quite the opposite of his opponent, far too messy despite a few kicks well felt here and there: a sequence of short jumped backhand cross-cushioned in the first game of the first set, a long line passing which cruficia the Spaniard at 3- 1 in 2e set, a backhand end to 4-2 in the 3e set, or a short crossed backhand to pick up at 6-6 when the Spaniard had completely taken him off the court.
The season and the scenery have changed, but Nadal is once again there. “It’s a different Roland Garros. It’s the same place, but the conditions have nothing to do with it, they are probably the most complicated I have experienced here. The ground is heavy, it is cold, the balls are slow. I am less prepared than usual ”, he said two days before his entry into the running, he who was unable to ravage European lands in the spring as usual.
Since then, he has continued to be cautious in his post-match statements, as if he wanted to anticipate and play down a possible misstep.
The Spaniard climbed to the semi-finals without being sparkling. In these very wet playing conditions and on this heavy soil, his forehand lift – this fetish weapon which usually pushes the opponent far behind the baseline – is less leaping (on average, 9 cm shorter than the end line). last year, calculated the hawk-eye). His ball, which weighs tons under a blazing sun, seems more “ordinary” this year. It was not until his semi-final to witness a show of force.
On his usual lap times
The Spaniard is aware that he is more vulnerable than in fine spring days. But as a monster of self-sacrifice, he relies on two ingredients that make his strength: concentration and determination. “You have to accept things as they are. I stay positive, knowing that the conditions are not perfect for me. But I’m here to fight, to play as hard as possible, to train with the right attitude and to give myself chances. I will play day by day ”, he said again at the beginning of the fortnight.
Friday, this is the recipe he applied against Diego Schwartzman. Cold-blooded beast, it was he who made the difference on important points. This was particularly the case to save three 6-5 balls for the Argentinian in the 3e set while the latter, back to the wall, had started to let go of his blows and he himself was experiencing a little relaxation. And this was still the case a few minutes later in the tie-break, where he delivered a masterclass (7-0).
More vulnerable than the other years, Rafael Nadal is nevertheless on his usual lap times: he did not lose a single set to reach the final. Not unhappy in the draw, he had the opportunity to build slowly but surely in strength. After the first rounds by way of training, his tournament only really started in the quarter-finals on Tuesday, against the promising Italian Jannik Sinner (7-6, 6-4, 6-1), taking down the record for the latest match in tournament history (1:25 a.m.).
Sunday, in the final, against Novak Djokovic or Stefanos Tsitsipas, it is he who will have the pressure on his shoulders: in case of victory, he would join Roger Federer and his 20 Grand Slam titles. But so far, for the twelve-time winner of the event, the weight of history has never been too heavy to bear.