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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

Russia to finish Youth Olympics with most medals

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Russia clinched the top spot in the Youth Olympic medal standings, two days before the Closing Ceremony in Buenos Aires and eight months after it was excluded from the PyeongChang Winter Games for its doping problems.

The Russians have 52 medals with 25 golds so far, distancing the rest of the world.

1. Russia — 52 total, 25 gold
2. China — 36 total, 18 gold
3. Mixed NOCs — 36 total, 12 gold
4. Japan — 34 total, 14 gold
5. Italy — 31 total, 10 gold
10. U.S. — 15 total, 4 gold

China and Russia went one-two in total medals at the first two Youth Olympics in Singapore in 2010 and Nanjing, China in 2014. The U.S. has never topped a Youth Olympic total medal table, be it Summer or Winter Games.

The U.S. has, however, earned the most total medals at the last six Summer Olympics, beginning with the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The Youth Olympics, for athletes ages 14 to 18, do not emphasize medal counts (plus have many medal events where athletes from different nations compete on the same team). The Games include many Olympic events and some that are not on the Olympic program, including break dancing, where a Russian who goes by Bumblebee earned gold last week.

The next Youth Olympics are the winter version in the IOC base of Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2020, followed by the summer version in 2022 in Dakar, Senegal, the first Olympic Games of any kind to be held in Africa.

The Youth Olympics conclude with the last full day of medal competition on Wednesday and the Closing Ceremony on Thursday.

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MORE: Youth Olympic TV schedule

Aliya Mustafina returns to gymnastics worlds, year after giving birth

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Aliya Mustafina, an all-around medalist at the last two Olympics, made Russia’s team for next week’s world gymnastics championships, 16 months after giving birth to daughter Alisa.

Mustafina, 24, is joined by one Rio Olympic teammate, Angelina Melnikova, and three world championships rookies (plus Olympian Daria Spiridonova as an alternate), according to Russia’s gymnastics federation.

Mustafina is the last non-American woman to win an Olympic or world championships all-around, back in 2010 in her first year as a senior gymnast. A series of injuries followed, including surgeries on both knees and her left ankle.

She missed the 2015 Worlds with back pain but rebounded for a medal of every color in Rio (uneven bars gold, team silver and all-around bronze, just as she had done at London 2012).

Her seven total Olympic medals are tied for the most by a Russian woman since the fall of the Soviet Union with retired gymnast Svetlana Khorkina.

Viktoria Komova, the 2012 Olympic all-around silver medalist who has also struggled with injuries, is not on Russia’s team for worlds in Doha. She last competed at a global championship in 2015, sharing the uneven bars title with three other gymnasts.

Mustafina joins a list of distinguished moms to return to the top level of gymnastics, including Oksana Chusovitina, who began competing in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and, seven Olympics later, is still competing at age 43 (for Uzbekistan).

The most decorated Olympic gymnast, Soviet Larisa Latynina, earned 12 of her 18 medals after becoming a mom.

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