Rafael Nadal
Credits: Twitter @rolandgarros

Building upto the semi-final clash between Diego Schwartzman vs Rafael Nadal, there were speculations that Nadal was in big trouble. Diego defeated him in Rome a couple of weeks back convincingly. But even after so much talk about all the reasons this pandemic-postponed French Open could be more difficult – cooler autumn weather, slightly heavier tennis balls, lack of match preparation – Rafael Nadal is right back where he usually is: in the final. And this time, in addition to closing in on an unfathomable 13th championship at Roland Garros, Nadal gets a chance to tie Roger Federer for the men’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles.

What he did to his latest opponent what he’s done to so many at the clay-court tournament he has dominated during his career was just fascinating. Nadal defeated 12th-seeded Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0) on Friday in a semifinal filled with grueling, grinding points. He has won all 18 sets he’s played over the past two weeks, making a mockery of the supposed explanations for why this year, so different for so many reasons, might be different for Nadal in the City of Lights.

Rafa improved to 99-2 at the French Open, including a combined 25-0 in semifinals and finals, as he seeks a fourth consecutive title in Paris. That would add to the 34-year-old Spaniard’s previous streaks of four in a row from 2005 to 2008 and five from 2010 to 2014, to go along with four trophies at the US Open, two at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open.

There were many theories involving Nadal’s win. One line of thinking involved the shift in dates from May-June to September-October. Another had to do with Nadal’s decision to skip the US Open, leaving him with only three matches since tennis resumed in August after its pandemic-forced hiatus. Yet another involved Schwartzman, a 28-year-old from Argentina: He upset Nadal in straight sets on clay at the Italian Open last month. But that still left their head-to-head ledger at 9-1 in Nadal’s favor, and he showed why. But yes, Rafa is a champion and he played like one.

Only 1,000 spectators are being allowed on the grounds daily, owing to the rising COVID-19 cases in France, and the sparse crowd on hand was cheering for Schwartzman late in the third, likely not as much because they were invested in a victory for him as because they wanted to watch more tennis. A key game came at 5-all in the third, lasting more than 10 minutes and featuring a trio of break points for Schwartzman. Take any of those and he would serve for the set. But Nadal erased them with aggressive play — two quick forehand winners and a volley winner off a delayed serve-and-volley net rush.

He further asserted himself in the tiebreaker, leaving fans chanting, “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” as they have so many times in the past.

Nadal will face either Djokovic or Tsitsipas in the final.