Reem Abulleil takes a deep dive into the Rafael Nadal-Juan Martin del Potro match-up set to take place in the Roland Garros semi-finals on Friday.
For a second time in the last three Grand Slams, Rafael Nadal will square off against Juan Martin del Potro in the semi-finals.
Nadal’s rain-interrupted four-set win over Argentina’s No. 11 seed Diego Schwartzman on Thursday saw him become just the third man in the Open Era to reach 11 semi-finals at the same Grand Slam (alongside Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors).
Del Potro’s four-set win against Marin Cilic, which also took place over two days due to weather disruptions, saw the fifth-seeded Argentine reach the semi-finals at Roland Garros for the first time since 2009. He ended his seven-match losing streak against top-five opposition on clay.
Both winners return to the court on Friday for a highly-anticipated semi-final, with Del Potro trying to hand Nadal just his third-ever defeat in a best-of-five match on clay.
DELPO’S CLOSE CALL
When Del Potro’s 15-match winning streak came to an end at the hands of John Isner in Miami last March, the Argentine was not sure how much he would be playing on clay this season. He then decided to go to Madrid after a decent training block, but then sustained a leg injury in Rome, where he retired during his last-16 clash with David Goffin. With question marks surrounding his participation at Roland Garros, no one expected Del Potro to play, let alone do well here. He is now into his fifth career Slam semi-final, has taken his 2018 win-loss record to 28-6.
THE WEATHER FACTOR
It’s not a secret that sunny, warm conditions aid Nadal’s topspin game on clay and when it was damp and overcast on Wednesday, Schwartzman was able to capitalise on that and he pressured the Spaniard for a set and a half before rain suspended play. While Del Potro’s has a different game to Schwartzman, he too won’t mind some rain on Friday to limit the damage Nadal’s lefty topspin forehand can do against his still-not-perfect backhand (three wrist surgeries have had a lasting effect on Del Potro’s backhand). The forecast keeps changing here, and after initial reports indicated Friday would be rainy, it looks like it’s just going to be partly cloudy.
NADAL STILL GETS NERVOUS
“I am a human person,” Nadal reminded everyone in his press conference on Thursday. The 10-time Roland Garros champion still gets nervous on big occasions, which we saw against Dominic Thiem in Madrid, and against Schwartzman early in their match on Wednesday in Paris. He’s only every lost two matches at Roland Garros since he made his debut here in 2005 but he insists there are never any guarantees.
“Quarter-finals, important match for me. Was a match that maybe is a key match. So these kind of matches that can give you the chance to keep going or, for another side, you lose all the chances, no, against a tough opponent that I had problems with him in Australia and Madrid. Even if it was 6-3, 6-4, it was an uncomfortable match for me. I know it was going to be a tough match, and I was a little bit more nervous than usual,” he said of his quarterfinal against Schwartzman.
THE CLAY FACTOR
While Del Potro has a respectable 5-9 record against Nadal head-to-head, he is 0-2 against the Mallorcan on clay. This will be their first meeting on the red dirt since the Davis Cup final in 2011.
Del Potro has played just 24 matches on clay in the last five seasons. Nadal has played more matches on clay this season alone.
WHAT THE PLAYERS SAID
Nadal on whether the psychological advantage he has over his opponents ever adds pressure on his shoulders:
“It is something that I am living always with this. I don’t feel this psychological advantage. And because I don’t consider myself there and the opponents there (indicating difference in level) that’s not affecting me in a negative way. I just go on court knowing that every match is difficult and I can lose and I can win. That’s the sport. So I know if I’m playing my best then I have my chances always. My only advantage and my only goal is I know if I play my best, I gonna have good chances.”
Nadal on how he embraces the pressure:
“I don’t have any obligation to win, first thing. Second thing, if you don’t feel the pressure, it’s because you don’t love the sport. And if you don’t love the sport is better to come back home and do another thing. And that’s it. Pressure is part of the sport in general. I don’t feel the pressure now in semifinals. I feel the pressure every day, but not here. I feel the pressure in every match of the year. And here is an important event for me. Pressure is good. You are able to control that, then things can — that pressure, that adrenaline can be in a positive way. And I believe that after that stop yesterday that adrenaline and that pressure was in a positive way, no?”
Del Potro on making the semis after nearly missing the tournament through injury:
“I’m feeling so, so happy to make the right decision for play here. I am doing well. Of course I didn’t expect to get in semi-finals couple of weeks before (smiling). But now I’m here, and I’m still alive. My physical is good, and hopefully I can be ready for tomorrow.”
Del Potro on the career longevity of Nadal and Roger Federer:
“I thought that after nine years I will play a different one, not Rafa or Roger. But all my semi-finals in Grand Slam was against them. The last one in US Open I lost against Rafa. In Wimbledon I lost against Djokovic. Here with Federer. And, I mean, it’s a big challenge to play them in Grand Slam. But anyways, I think they shows how good they are at playing Grand Slams because, after 10 years, they are fighting to win these kind of tournaments. It’s amazing for the tennis, the tennis world.”
Del Potro on how confident he is in his chances against Nadal on Friday:
“Tomorrow I will try to play a match as I did in a different surface against Rafa, but he’s lefty and what I say before my match against [Albert] Ramos-Vinolas, a lefty player has advantage with me because he can find easily my backhand, and he knows what my backhand is at the moment. But anyways, I will try to do my best, to play my best tennis, and see if I can do a good match.”
4 — Del Potro will return to the top-four in the rankings on Monday, for the first time since February 2014.
6 — Del Potro is the sixth Argentinean man in history to reach multiple semi-finals at Roland Garros.
11 — Roland Garros semi-finals for Nadal, an Open Era record.
27 — Grand Slam semi-final appearances for Nadal, 5th most by a man in the Open Era.
28 — Del Potro and Nadal both recorded their 28th match wins this season. Only two men have won more matches in 2018 – Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, who have both won 34.
235 — Grand Slam match wins for Nadal, third most behind Federer (332) and Djokovic (244).