Birthday boy Rafael Nadal aims for 14th French Open final despite future fears

Rafael Nadal looks to celebrate his 36th birthday on Friday by reaching a 14th French Open final which by his own admission could be the last of his record-breaking career. Nadal, the 13-time champion, faces Germany’s Alexander Zverev but is clear his chronic, long-term foot injury has put him on borrowed time.

“The last three months and a half for me, the only thing that I can say is haven’t been easy,” said the Spaniard after his epic four-set win over old rival Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals. “But I have to keep going.” Nadal, chasing a record-extending 22nd Grand Slam title to move two in front of Djokovic and Roger Federer, is working constantly to find a cure for the foot issue.

“If we are not able to find an improvement or a small solution, then it’s becoming super difficult for me. I am just enjoying every day that I have the chance to be here, and without thinking much about what can happen in the future.

– Find solution –

“I’m going to keep fighting to find a solution, but for the moment, we haven’t.” Nadal’s win over defending champion and world number one Djokovic was the 110th of his 17-year Roland Garros career.

He has had to dig deep into his resources to reach his 15th semi-final in the French capital. It took him four hours and 21 minutes to defeat Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round in a tie which saw him stretched to five sets for only the third time at the tournament.

Against Djokovic, he needed four hours and 12 minutes, saving two set points in the fourth set to avoid another five-setter.

Djokovic is the man responsible for two of Nadal’s three losses at the French Open. With his career-long rival out of the way, and world number two Daniil Medvedev and fourth-ranked 2021 runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas eliminated, Nadal remains favourite to lift the trophy on Sunday.

Against Zverev, he boasts a 6-3 winning record, capturing four of the pair’s five clay court meetings. Zverev, 11 years younger than Nadal, is still searching for a maiden Slam title. He is into a second successive French Open semi-final.

ALSO READ | French Open: Croatia’s Marin Cilic becomes 5th active player to reach semis at all Grand Slams

– ‘Supposed to win’ –

He defeated teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz in the quarter-finals but had to save a match point in a five-set win over Argentina’s Sebastian Baez in the second round.

He has also never defeated Nadal or Djokovic at the majors. “I’m not 20 or 21 years old anymore; I’m 25. I am at the stage where I want to win, I’m at the stage where I’m supposed to win,” admitted the third seed.

In Friday’s other semi-final, Marin Cilic takes on Casper Ruud with both men having made the semi-finals at Roland Garros for the first time.

Cilic, 33, and the 2014 US Open champion, is only the fifth active player along with Nadal, Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray to have reached the semi-finals of all four Slams.

Cilic, ranked 23 in the world, is in his first semi-final at the majors since 2018 when he was runner-up to Federer at the Australian Open. Ruud is the first Norwegian man ever to make the last four of a Slam with the eighth-ranked 23-year-old one of the form players on clay.

His testy quarter-final win over 19-year-old Holger Rune was his 65th on clay since the 2020 season. Seven of his eight titles have come on clay. Ruud has a 2-0 edge over Cilic, including their only meeting on the surface in Rome.

Former world number three Cilic knocked out Medvedev in straight sets in the fourth round, without facing a break point, and seventh-ranked Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals on the back of 33 aces and 88 winners.

Only two of his 20 career titles have come on clay courts, the most recent of which was at Istanbul in 2017.

Despite his surprise run to the last-four, where he is comfortably the lowest seed left, Cilic is content to maintain a low profile.

“I really don’t mind being under the highlights. I’m just trying to use my opportunities as much as I can during my career every day, every match to give my best,” he said.

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