• The Star Staff

Rafael Nadal, after a late night at the French Open, will face Diego Schwartzman in the semifinals


By Christopher Clarey


Diego Schwartzman had to play for more than five hours to defeat the third-seeded Dominic Thiem in five sets at Roland Garros, while Rafael Nadal required just three sets to beat Jannik Sinner, an unseeded 19-year-old Italian.


But Nadal and Schwartzman, who will play in the semifinals on Friday, both had to overcome significant obstacles during the longest session of tennis ever at the French Open.


It began on Tuesday morning and ended Wednesday at nearly 1:30 a.m. Paris time as Nadal finished off Sinner with a leaping overhead, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-1.


By then, Schwartzman was back in the players’ hotel near the Eiffel Tower, recovering from his grueling duel with Thiem.


Schwartzman was so shaky when it came time to close out sets against Thiem but so solid when he most needed to be.


Schwartzman’s reward was a 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory that put him into a Grand Slam singles semifinal for the first time.


The match was a classic clay-court tussle, full of long slides and extended rallies, many of which stretched past 20 strokes and left both men fluttering their lips or puffing out their cheeks. But it was hardly just a baseline struggle. Schwartzman went to the net 71 times; Thiem 53, often to track down a deft drop shot.


Schwartzman, the No. 12 seed from Argentina, often looked like the fresher man, but Thiem — who won his first major title at the U.S. Open last month, just 14 days before the French Open began — can scrap for points as well as end them in a hurry with thunderous groundstrokes, and he kept pushing and swinging away.


For quite some time, Schwartzman kept cracking. With Thiem serving at 4-5 in the second set, Schwartzman had a straightforward forehand near the net that he would typically have smacked for a winner to take a 15-40 lead and give himself two set points. Instead, Schwartzman missed into the net and Thiem went on to hold and even the match at one set apiece.


Schwartzman also served for the third set at 5-3, only to be broken at love, making four unforced errors.


“I was so nervous,” Schwartzman said. “I saw a chance today, and I didn’t take it in the second and third sets.”


It looked as if he might not be able to break the bad habit when he served for the fourth set at 5-4 and took a 40-love lead. Thiem saved all three set points, the last with a forehand winner on the run, and broke Schwartzman’s serve. But Schwartzman, often frustrated with himself and his team after Tuesday’s earlier disappointments, smiled through the pain this time.


He then broke Thiem’s serve twice in the fifth set, and the friendly rivals were soon chatting and grinning at the net, their 5-hour-8-minute test complete.


“I just told him that he deserves it,” Thiem said.


So there will be no U.S. Open-French Open double champion in singles for this unique season. Thiem, a finalist at Roland Garros the last two years, tried to recover from his breakthrough victory in New York by taking two weeks off before the French Open, which was postponed from its usual dates in May and June because of the coronavirus pandemic.


But Thiem was pushed to five sets in the fourth round by the French wild-card entry Hugo Gaston and was pushed even harder by Schwartzman in cool, heavy conditions that made clean winners a challenge.


Thiem at times looked as weary as a man who had finished a marathon rather than one who was still in the middle of one.


“To be honest, I was over the limit today,” Thiem said. “Maybe I would have recovered. Even though I’m physically and mentally on the edge, you never know in a Slam, especially with Wednesday and Thursday off, two full days to recover. You never know what’s happening. But at the end, I gave everything I had out there. It was an amazing match.”


This year at Roland Garros, it will be up to Schwartzman, not Thiem, to face Nadal, whom Schwartzman defeated for the first time in the Italian Open last month.


Nadal, the 12-time French Open champion, is a creature of ritual, but this year’s autumnal edition of his signature tournament has pushed him far outside his comfort zone. With a roof on the main Philippe Chatrier Court, as well as floodlights, night matches are now possible. The conditions have blunted some of the pace of Nadal’s whipping forehand and left it bouncing on average 3 1/2 inches lower than in 2019, according to Tennis Channel.


On Tuesday, that often put the ball right in the gifted Sinner’s strike zone during the first two sets, and the teenager held his own for nearly two hours. He served for the first set and won a surprising share of the baseline duels with his clean, relatively flat hitting. His feathery footwork and ability to open up the court with power and sharp angles were all remarkable.


It was also quite a day for Argentine tennis. Earlier Tuesday, Nadia Podoroska became the first qualifier to reach the women’s singles semifinals at the French Open in the Open era. Podoroska, ranked 131st and playing for the first time in the main draw at Roland Garros, upset the No. 3 seed, Elina Svitolina, 6-2, 6-4.


It was Podoroska’s first singles match against a top 20 opponent, but however improbable on paper, the result looked nothing but logical on clay as their match unfolded. Podoroska dictated play with her heavy topspin forehand, changed pace effectively with drop-shot winners and converted eight of 13 break points on Svitolina’s shaky serve.


It was the latest bravura performance by a new arrival this year, and it guaranteed that there would be an unseeded woman in the singles final. In today’s semifinals Podoroska will face Iga Swiatek, a 19-year-old from Poland who overwhelmed the No. 1 seed, Simona Halep, in the fourth round and defeated Martina Trevisan, an Italian qualifier, 6-3, 6-1, on Tuesday.


Trevisan, ranked 159th, got one more game than Halep against Swiatek, a powerful athlete who has yet to drop a set in the tournament and has long been considered a potential star.


Thiem’s and Schwartzman’s lengthy duel on Philippe Chatrier Court pushed the start of Swiatek‘s and Trevisan’s quarterfinal into the evening, and Nadal and Sinner into late night.


But the backlog was also prompted by the decision to start the day’s schedule on Chatrier with the postponed fourth-round women’s singles match between Danielle Collins of the United States and Ons Jabeur of Tunisia. Collins ended up winning, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, in just under two hours.


Collins, a fiery competitor and a two-time NCAA singles champion at the University of Virginia, was a surprise semifinalist at the 2019 Australian Open. She entered Wednesday as a surprise quarterfinalist at another major, after falling back in the rankings in the past year, only to fall to Sofia Kenin, the American No. 4 seed and the highest-ranked player remaining in the women’s draw. Kenin, who won her first Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open this year, beat Collins 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 to advance to the semifinals today against seventh-seeded Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. Kvitova defeated Laura Siegemund of Germany, 6-3, 6-3 in Wednesday’s other quarterfinal.

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