SF Preview: Rafael Nadal Seeking More History Against No. 1-Chasing Alexander Zverev | ATP Tour

Friday is men’s semi-finals day at Roland Garros, with Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev set to open play on Court Philippe Chatrier ahead of a clash between Casper Ruud and Marin Cilic.

Playing on his 36th birthday, Nadal looks to take the next step towards a record-extending 14th Roland Garros title and 22nd Grand Slam trophy. He is bidding to sweep the Australian Open and Roland Garros titles in the same year for the first time. If he succeeds, he will become the oldest champion in the history of the clay-court Grand Slam.

There’s a lot on the line for the other semi-finalists as well. Zverev can rise to No. 2 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings with a win over the Spaniard, and would set himself up to become World No. 1 for the first time should he lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires on Sunday.

Ruud, playing in his first Grand Slam semi-final, can rise to No. 6 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings with a win over Cilic, who is seeking to become the 19th player in history to reach the final of all four majors.

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[3] Alexander Zverev (GER) vs. [5] Rafael Nadal (ESP)

Nadal booked his 10th ATP Head2Head meeting with Zverev by winning the match that many had circled at the start of Roland Garros. He was emotional after his quarter-final victory over Novak Djokovic, but began looking ahead to the semi-final even in the immediate afterglow of that Tuesday night triumph.

Zverev and Nadal’s second Grand Slam meeting comes in the wake of dramatic four-set wins for both players. Zverev fended off a strong Carlos Alcaraz comeback to reach the semi-finals in Paris for a second-straight year, while 13-time champion Nadal improved to 8-2 at the clay-court Grand Slam against World No. 1 Djokovic.

The pair’s previous encounter at a major was a five-set thriller at the 2017 Australian Open, where Nadal took the final two sets to clinch a third-round comeback victory. That win contributes to the Spaniard’s 6-3 ATP Head2Head series lead over Zverev, with Nadal leading 4-1 in meetings on clay. Yet the fifth seed, who holds a 110-3 match record at Roland Garros, will not be taking anything for granted when he takes to court on Friday.

“If I am not playing good or if I am losing in that semi-finals match, [it is] not going to be because I’m not going to be focussed,” said Nadal after ousting Djokovic. “I have experience on that. I am not the kind of guy and player that emotionally goes high and low. I am very stable, I think, emotionally.

Despite arriving in Paris with lingering doubts over a chronic foot injury that hampered him at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Rome, Nadal has looked in fine form in the French capital. The Spaniard eased past Jordan Thompson, Corentin Moutet and Botic van de Zandschulp before coming through a five-setter with Felix Auger-Aliassime and downing Djokovic to book his spot in the last four.

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For third seed Zverev, the quarter-final win over Carlos Alcaraz represented something of a breakthrough. The German served with confidence and struck the ball cleanly throughout to clinch a maiden triumph over a Top 10 opponent at a Grand Slam, and the 19-time tour-level titlist hopes the experience can help him get over the line on Friday against Nadal.

“Yes, I have not beaten them in majors, but I feel like I was very close,” said Zverev when discussing the prospect of facing Nadal or Djokovic prior to their epic quarter-final clash. “I feel like I have had very difficult and tough matches against them… But there is a big difference between having a tough match and beating them.

“Hopefully I can manage and take this win today and put it on the court on Friday.”

The German’s Roland Garros campaign was almost over in the second round when he saved a match point before edging Sebastian Baez over five sets. Zverev dealt with Sebastian Ofner, Brandon Nakashima and Bernabe Zapata Miralles in a more routine fashion, but is unlikely to be able to afford any lapses if he wants to become just the fourth player to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros.

Australian Open champion Nadal is chasing a second Grand Slam and fourth title overall in 2022, while Zverev is yet to lift a trophy this year. Yet the World No. 3 has enjoyed a solid European clay season. He reached the semi-finals in Monte Carlo and Rome either side of a run to the championship match in Madrid, and the five-time ATP Masters 1000 champion believes he is ready to go all the way at a Grand Slam.

“At the end of the day, I’m not 20 or 21 years old anymore,” said Zverev after his quarter-final win. “I’m 25. I am at the stage where I want to win, I’m at the stage where I’m supposed to win, as well.”

While he is yet to go all the way at the Grand Slam level, the German has done plenty of winning in his career to date. He leads the ATP Tour in match victories since 2017, the year he turned 20.

Player  ATP Tour Wins (2017-22)
Zverev 277
Djokovic 254
Nadal 250
Medvedev 236
Tsitsipas 222

[7] Casper Ruud (NOR) vs. [20] Marin Cilic (CRO)

Like Nadal, Cilic will play the role of veteran in this semi-final. It’s a position he has excelled in to reach the semi-finals, downing Daniil Medvedev, 26, and Andrey Rublev, 24, in the previous two rounds. 

While the 33-year-old plans to continue for “at least three, four years” on the Tour, this could be his best opportunity to win a second Grand Slam title to go along with his 2014 US Open triumph. The Croatian is playing in his sixth Grand Slam semi — and first since he reached the 2018 Australian Open final — while Ruud had not reached the quarter-finals of a Slam until this week. 

But Cilic is 0-2 in his ATP Head2Head series against the Norwegian, with Ruud scoring wins at the ATP Masters 1000s in Rome (2019) and Montreal (2020).

“I would say he’s one of the best guys on the Tour, especially on clay,” Cilic said of the 23-year-old, before their matchup was confirmed. “On clay courts he’s having an incredible 12 months, won so many titles on clay. Definitely enjoying to play and feels fantastic on clay. It’s going to be absolutely a difficult match if he goes through.

“For me, I try to focus on myself. [I have] obviously a big game, big serve, and I have to do my things well in order to play against these top guys the best I can.”

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Ruud has rounded into form brilliantly in recent weeks following a 4-4 start to the European clay swing. In May, he reached the Rome semi-finals (l. to Djokovic) and won the Geneva title before Roland Garros. He takes a nine-match winning streak into the semi-finals.

The Norwegian has had prolific success on clay in recent years. From 2020-22, he leads the Tour in match wins (65), titles (7) and finals (8) on the surface.

Most Clay Wins (2020-22)  Most Clay Titles (2020-22)
Ruud – 65 Ruud – 7
Tsitsipas – 51 Alcaraz/Djokovic – 4
Schwartzman – 47 Garin/Nadal/Tsitsipas – 3
Djokovic – 43  

Ruud became the first Norwegian man to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final when he beat 12th seed Hubert Hurkacz in four sets in the fourth round. He advanced to the semis with a four-set win over #NextGenATP Dane Holger Rune in the first all-Scandinavian Roland Garros quarter-final.

“These are the matches you dream about playing and hopefully of course even the final, if it’s possible,” Ruud said after his latest victory. “I have to be really focussed and bring my ‘A’ game in the semi-final because Marin has played great all week and it’s going to be another tough match.”

While Cilic played the longer quarter-final — battling Rublev for four hours and 10 minutes in a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 3-7, 7-6(10-2) epic — Ruud did not put Rune away until roughly 12:45 a.m. in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. After that three-hour-and-15-minute contest, he has less than 48 hours to prepare to the biggest match of his young career. 

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