TENNIS

Rafael Nadal reaches French Open final to face Casper Ruud after Alexander Zverev retired with ankle injury

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PARIS — Rafael Nadal was locked in a tight, convincing and long French Open semi-final on Friday when his opponent, third seed Alexander Zverev, ran to chase a shot and twisted his right ankle. Zverev collapsed to the ground, moaning in agony and clutching his lower leg.

His outfit black, his arms and legs smeared in rust-colored clay, Zverev was helped by a trainer and then wheeled off the court in a wheelchair. Minutes later, after Nadal saw him crying in a small room in the stadium, Zverev returned to the Philippe Chatrier court on crutches, his right shoe removed, and conceded the match, unable to continue.

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The sudden end of a contest that had lasted for 3 hours but not even in two complete sets allowed Nadal to become, on his 36th birthday, the second oldest male finalist in the history of Roland-Garros. He will now seek to become the oldest champion of a tournament he has already won a record 13 times against first-time Grand Slam runner-up Casper Ruud on Sunday.

“The only thing I can say is I hope he’s not too bad. I hope it’s just the normal thing when you twist your ankle, and I hope nothing (is not broken). That’s what everyone hopes for,” said Nadal. “Although for me it’s a dream to be in the Roland Garros final, of course that’s not how we want it to be. … If you’re human, you should have a lot of sorrow for a colleague.”

With the patter of rain audible against the closed retractable roof of Court Philippe Chatrier, and many in the crowd of 15,000 repeatedly chanting “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” he emerged to claim as close a first set as possible, exhausting by a score of 7-6 (8) after 1 hour and a half. The second set was also heading for a tiebreaker after another hour and a half when Zverev fell behind the baseline and lost a point that allowed Nadal to hold serve for 6-all.

A coach came out to attend to him, and Nadal circled the net to check on Zverev as well. After Zverev returned to the pitch to say he should retire from the game, he shook hands with the chair umpire and then hugged Nadal.

Nadal suffered from chronic pain in his left foot and was coming off a pair of wins that each lasted more than 4 hours – including his quarter-final against defending champion Novak Djokovic which ended at 1:15 a.m. on Wednesday – but n showed no signs of age, injury or fatigue against 25-year-old Zverev.

What Nadal said afterwards caused him problems was how the high humidity affected things, with clay sticking to tennis balls and making it harder for him to apply his thick topspin .

“The conditions weren’t ideal for me this afternoon – or the way I normally like to play here,” Nadal said. “That’s why I couldn’t create the damage I wanted.”

As well as bidding for a 14th French Open trophy, Nadal can claim his 22nd Grand Slam title to add to the men’s record he already holds following his triumph at the Australian Open in January. Djokovic and Roger Federer are tied at 20.

There’s also this at stake for Nadal in Sunday’s final against Ruud: it would be the first time the Spaniard has won the first two Grand Slams of the calendar year.

Ruud became the first Norwegian to reach a major final, knocking out 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in a match interrupted for over 10 minutes in the third set by a climate activist who tied herself to the net and knelt on the pitch.

Ruud, 23, has never faced Nadal but trained at the King of Clay academy in Mallorca.

“He’s a perfect example of how you should behave on the court: never give up and never complain. He’s been my idol all my life,” said Ruud, who was coached by his father, Christian, professional player from 1991 to 2001. “I guess it’s the perfect time and worth the wait to finally play him in a Grand Slam final.”

Zverev was a runner-up at the US Open two years ago and won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, but he’s still chasing his first major title.

“He was unlucky,” Nadal said. “The one thing I know for sure is that he won’t win one – way more than one. So I wish him all the best and a very speedy recovery.”

Zverev compiled nearly twice as many winners, 40-21, and got off to an “incredible” start, according to Nadal, who called it a “miracle” that he won the first set.

Zverev led 4-2 in each set.

But in the first, his racquet flew out of his hand and landed behind him after a wild swing mistakenly sent a ball flying past the chair umpire until it landed 10ft wide ground. Later, an errant backhand allowed Nadal to break for the first time, making a 4-all and sending red and yellow Spanish flags flapping in the stands.

In the opening tiebreaker, Zverev led 6-2, for four set points. But Nadal obliterated them all, including one by sprinting to his left, ending up wide of the doubles alley, to somehow conjure up a winning cross forehand from an incredible angle. The audience gave him a standing ovation. He probably had no reason to surrender to Zverev’s sharp volley, let alone fashion such a short answer.

And yet, that’s what Nadal does, so often, to so many opponents. He hangs on, he never takes a point away, he plays every shot as if it were his very last.

It’s been like that since he was a teenager. Why stop now that he’s in his mid-30s?

The only older male runner-up in Paris was Bill Tilden, the runner-up at 37 in 1930. The oldest champion to date was Andres Gimeno, who was 34 in 1972.

Nadal, who won the championship at Roland Garros for the first time aged 19, has said in recent days that he cannot be sure that every game will be his last at Roland Garros. His left foot is the main reason for this pessimism.

“All the sacrifices and all the things I have to go through to try and keep playing,” Nadal said, “really makes sense when you appreciate moments like me in this tournament.”

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