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Nadal gets first win over Federer in five years to reach twelfth French Open final

Hannah Wilks in ATP Tour 7 Jun 2019
  • Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the final of the 2019 French Open
  • Nadal got his first win over Federer since 2014 in windy conditions at Roland Garros
  • Nadal to face Novak Djokovic or Dominic Thiem in Sunday's final
Rafael Nadal celebrates victory over Roger Federer in the semifinals of the French Open (PA Sports)

Rafael Nadal got his first win over Roger Federer for five years to reach the final of the 2019 French Open.

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In windy conditions, 11-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal maintained his unbeaten record in semifinal matches at Roland Garros as he defeated Roger Federer in straight sets.

The 39th meeting between the two great rivals saw Nadal triumph 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, ending a run of five defeats at the hands of Federer.

'There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him,' a defeated Federer said after the match. 

Rafael Nadal attacks the net (PA Sports)
Although Nadal still had the overall lead in the head-to-head, having won 23 of their 38 meetings, Federer has had the best of their recent encounters, with Nadal's most recent victory coming in the semifinals of the Australian Open in January 2014. But following his six-month break from tennis in 2016, Federer seemed to have the solution to playing Nadal, at least on hard courts; playing with a larger racquet head, driving through his backhand instead of slicing it and attacking the net constantly. The new approach saw Federer win all four matches he and Nadal played in 2017, and they did not face off in 2018.

Facing Nadal on clay, however, was always going to be a different kettle of fish for Federer, who undoubtedly factored that in to his decision to reverse his policy of skipping the clay-court season in recent years. Playing the French Open for the first time since 2015, Federer had dropped only one set on his way to the semifinals, exceeding the expectations of many when he defeated 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals.

But it was clear from the first exchanges of Friday's semifinal that both men had to contend with challenging conditions as well as each other. While the forecast rain held off throughout the match, there were high winds on Court Philippe-Chatrier that were clocked above 39mph and saw balls swerving in mid-air and debris blowing on to the court. 

Both men struggled in the early exchanges to find their footing in such conditions. Nadal's first service game lasted longer than eight minutes and saw him have to save break point before he held, and although the Spaniard broke Federer in the next game to lead 2-0 and had points for 4-1, he was broken back for 2-3.

'You get to a point where you're just happy to make shots and not look ridiculous. It's that bad,' Federer said of the wind. 'There is also no way to practice in these conditions. It's all a mindset. It's footwork…It was difficult, but I accept that. He played in an incredible way. He has incredible abilities on clay. I knew that ahead of time.'

Federer and Nadal meet at the net (PA Sports)
But Nadal is not known as one of the best in men's tennis at playing in windy conditions for nothing. Whether it's that his heavy ball fares better in wind than Federer's slice, which was effectively neutralized by the conditions with any floating ball swerving off the court, or his superb footwork allowing him to make quick adjustments, there was no question that Nadal was adapting better to the challenges posed by the weather. With Federer back on serve at 2-3, shanked backhands and framed forehands from the Swiss saw him leaking break points until Nadal broke on the sixth opportunity after Federer put a short forehand in the net. 

Cross-court backhand winners from Nadal sealed the next two games to see him lead 6-3, despite frequently having to pause as the wind picked up dust from the clay surface and sent it swirling into the air. 

'The conditions out there today have been so hard, so [it was] difficult to manage,' Nadal said afterwards. '[I]t was a day to just focus, accept all the adversities, and just be focused on [being] positive all the time. That's what I tried to do.'

Federer's opportunities, such as they were, came in the second set. He broke to lead 2-0 and had game point to consolidate, but couldn't convert and then found himself down break point, only for Nadal to produce a piece of magic - anticipating a too-conservative smash from Federer and flicking the forehand winner up the line. A few games later, Federer had 40-0 on his serve at 4-4, only to be broken and Nadal served out the set, taking a firm grip on the match.

Federer applauds the crowd as he leaves the court (PA Sports)
The third set felt like a foregone conclusion, with Nadal never having lost from two sets up on clay and clearly not about to start on this particular Friday. He broke to lead 2-1 as he forced a volley error from Federer, who would win only 17 of the 34 points that saw him attacking the net, with the furious Swiss blasting a ball into the stands to be given a code violation. Federer would only win one more game before Nadal wrapped up victory 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in 148 minutes, having hit 32 winners and made only 18 unforced errors - absolutely insane numbers given the conditions. 

'He makes you feel uncomfortable the way he defends the court and plays on clay. There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him,' Federer said. 

'I don't even know who I need to go search for to go practice with somebody who plays like him. It's just amazing how he plays from deep and then is able to bounce back and forth from the baseline.'

Despite obvious disappointment, Federer maintained a healthy perspective on his return to clay-court tennis in 2019, which saw him compile a 9-2 win-loss record, although he would not commit to playing clay-court tennis in 2020.

'I think I surprised myself maybe with how deep I got in this tournament and how well I actually was able to play throughout. Next year, just like with any other tournament, I don't know. We'll see what happens,' he said. 

'But I definitely enjoyed the clay-court season and [Roland Garros], so that would help the chances to return to the clay. It's not like it's been a shocker. So from that standpoint, it's okay.'

Nadal meanwhile comes in to the final with a definite advantage over whichever opponent he plays, having completed a straight-sets match on Friday while Novak Djokovic's match with Dominic Thiem was suspended at one set all and 3-1 in the third due to inclement weather. The match will resume on Saturday at 12pm local/11am BST.

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Nadal gets first win over Federer in five years to reach twelfth French Open final

In high winds, Rafael Nadal remained unbeaten in French Open semifinals as he defeated Roger Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to make the Roland Garros final for the twelfth time

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