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Rafael Nadal’s set streak ends, still advances at French Open

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PARIS (AP) — That Rafael Nadal would reach a record 11th French Open semifinal, closing in on his 11th championship at Roland Garros, was hardly surprising.

That he trailed by a set and a break before rain delays allowed him to change tactics and recover to get there? Now that, certainly, was unusual.

His opponent Friday will be Juan Martin del Potro, who got choked up after waiting nearly a decade to return to the final four in Paris — and dealing with three wrist operations in the interim.

Both men advanced by winning quarterfinals suspended the night before because of rain. The No. 1-ranked Nadal quickly announced Thursday that he was not going to be as passive as he was in the early going against 11th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, seizing 12 of the initial 13 points after they stepped out under a blue sky and pulling away for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 victory at Court Philippe Chatrier.

“Totally different guy yesterday,” Schwartzman said. “Maybe the day when you can beat Rafa was yesterday.”

Across the way at Court Suzanne Lenglen, No. 5 del Potro got distracted by a spectator right before a key double-fault, then marched over toward the stands to try to figure out who it was.

Otherwise, he stayed steady in a 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 win over No. 3 Marin Cilic in a matchup between two past U.S. Open champions.

The other men’s semifinal is No. 7 Dominic Thiem of Austria against 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy, who never won a Grand Slam match until last week and was cleared of a match-fixing charge on a technicality in 2016.

NBC, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and NBC Sports app coverage of the French Open continues with the men’s semifinals Friday at 11 a.m. ET.

After del Potro served out his victory at love to get to his first semifinal at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament since 2009, he sat in his changeover seat, chest heaving.

The 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Argentine wiped away tears during his on-court interview, telling fans who chanted his nickname, “delPo”: “It has been a long time without good feelings on my body. … I was close to quit this sport. And now I don’t have any words to describe this moment. It’s so good for me, for my team, for my family.”

Now comes what del Potro called “the challenge that every player wants to have” — taking on Nadal at Roland Garros. The 32-year-old Spaniard is 84-2 for his career at the French Open, winning four consecutive titles from 2005-08, another five consecutive from 2010-14, and No. 10 a year ago.

Broaden the scope to all best-of-five-set matches on red clay, and his record is 109-2.

And yet, insists Nadal: “I just go on court knowing that every match is difficult, and I can lose and I can win.”

There was a stretch Wednesday when it did seem as if Schwartzman might have a chance to become only the third man to beat Nadal at the French Open, joining Robin Soderling (fourth round, 2009) and Novak Djokovic (quarterfinals, 2015).

Nadal had not even dropped a set in the tournament since that match against Djokovic, a run of 37 in a row that ended in the opener against the 5-foot-7 (1.70-meter) Schwartzman, an Argentine eyeing his first appearance in a major semifinal.

Schwartzman compiled a 20-4 edge in winners in that first set, then broke Nadal for the fifth time in eight service games and was ahead 3-2 in the second when a rain delay of just under an hour arrived.

“I was a bit lucky,” said Nadal, who is 10-0 in French Open semifinals and 10-0 in finals at the tournament. “Gave me time for reflection, to calm my nerves and to see how I needed to change things.”

When they returned to the court, Nadal used a burst of three straight games — and 13 of 15 points — to close in on taking the second set. He was serving for it at 5-3, 30-15 when a new shower ended play for the day.

Nadal wrapped up that set by winning the first two points played Thursday and he was on his way, never relenting.

“He was playing great, and I was playing too defensive. I felt that I was playing a little bit under more stress than usual, and he was able to take control of the point too many times,” Nadal said about the match’s start.

And after the rain?

“I played more aggressive,” Nadal said, adding: “In my opinion, the match changed, no?”

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FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw

Simone Biles routing field, edging note card at U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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BOSTON — Simone Biles leads the field by a whopping 3.1 points halfway through the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She beat the number at the bottom of the note card in her locker at the World Champions Centre in Texas by a much smaller margin.

No matter the perspective, Biles was more dominant on Friday night than during most of the Rio Olympic cycle. In just her second meet in two years. Nine months after returning to training after a 14-month break.

Biles tallied the highest score on every apparatus in the field and the world’s highest all-around score since Rio — 60.1 points. The second-highest score since Rio? Biles’ 58.7 from her comeback meet at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago.

“At Classics, I was still easing back into everything and kind of feeling the surroundings and getting used to competing again,” Biles, 21, said on the fifth anniversary of her first U.S. all-around title. “I feel like today I really embraced it.”

NATIONALS: Scores | TV/Stream Schedule

In the last Olympic cycle, Biles averaged a 1.94-point lead after the first day of nationals.

She rolls into the final day of competition Sunday, looking to become the first woman to win five U.S. all-around titles and the first non-teen to win since 1971. And send another message ahead of October’s world championships.

Morgan Hurd, who won the 2017 World all-around title in Biles’ absence, is in a distant second after four clean routines. The margin between Biles and Hurd is greater than the margin between Hurd and the eighth-place gymnast.

Asked to put her 60-pointer in perspective, Biles brought up the note card.

“I think it says 60 at the bottom,” said Biles, who hit 62.366 in Rio under a different scoring system.

Biles hit 60 points in a practice meet at her gym right before she left for the U.S. Classic. Her new coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, encouraged Biles to keep the visual reminder placed in her locker leading up to nationals.

“I wanted to show her that she could reach that score,” Laurent Landi said. “It’s not a big deal. If she does normal, she can be there.”

But nobody else can. Biles had 25.4 total points in difficulty on Friday. The next-highest gymnast (Hurd) had 22.7.

Biles essentially began the meet with a 2.7-point head start. She then was judged to have better overall execution than everybody else, even though she had the disadvantage of performing harder routines.

“She’s just mentally there,” said Riley McCusker, who led Biles going into the last rotation at the U.S. Classic and is in third place here. “She can take that time off and [be] physically there, too.”

BILES ROUTINES: Balance Beam | Floor Exercise | Uneven Bars | Vault 1 | Vault 2

Biles’ flaw in her comeback meet three weeks ago was the uneven bars. She fell trying a more difficult routine than in Rio.

On Friday, Biles nailed her bars set, receiving applause from Laurent Landi, who coached Madison Kocian to a bars silver in Rio.

Biles has never won a national title on bars. At the Olympics, she had the highest scores in the all-around on beam, floor and vault and the seventh-highest score on bars.

“She needs to go through more mental belief that she [belongs] at this level on the bars,” said Laurent Landi, a 40-year-old former French gymnast.

Landi insisted Biles was not at her best Friday. He noted her two overcooked tumbling passes on floor that cost her six tenths for going out of bounds. Imperfect landings on other events. He dismissed Biles’ lead and said he already has plans for upgraded routines before worlds, next year and possibly in the Olympic year.

“Sometimes when it’s difficult in the gym, we, my wife and I, try just to remind her who she’s trying to beat,” he said. “It’s herself.”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?

Laurie Hernandez faces big decisions before comeback

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BOSTON — Laurie Hernandez still hopes to compete in 2019, but she must find a coach and a gym first. And transition from conditioning to regular gymnastics training.

“Kind of dipping my toe in the water,” she said Friday at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, where she is strictly a spectator.

Hernandez hasn’t competed since earning team gold and balance beam silver in Rio. Other than Simone Biles, she is the only member of the Final Five openly expressing a desire to return to elite competition next year.

“Because I’m still passionate about it,” she said. “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always loved it, and I still do. It’s still really important to me.”

Hernandez said she has been on gymnastics equipment every so often but not consistently. She has said hello to new U.S. high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster.

She hopes to pick Aly Raisman‘s brain about coming back. Raisman took almost a year off after the 2012 London Games, then trained for a full year before returning to competition in March 2015.

Unlike Raisman, Hernandez said there is no unfinished business from the Olympics that motivates her.

“I know what I’m getting myself into,” Hernandez said. “It’s kind of like curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back. Being 16, being so curious, not really knowing what I’m walking into, that was such an interesting experience [in Rio].”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?