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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

First Olympic women’s aerials champion Cheryazova dies at 50

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MOSCOW (AP) Lina Cheryazova, the first woman to win an Olympic aerials skiing gold medal, has died. She was 50.

Officials in the Russian city of Novosibirsk, where Cheryazova was living for the last two decades, said she died “following a lengthy illness,” without giving further details.

Competing for Uzbekistan, Cheryazova won gold with a triple flip when aerials skiing debuted on the Olympic program in 1994 in Lillehammer.

Shortly after winning, she learned her mother died three weeks before.

Cheryazova’s career was derailed later that year when she suffered a serious head injury while training in the United States, and spent days in a coma. She retired after failing to qualify for the 1998 Winter Olympics.

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Clare Egan notches first World Cup podium in biathlon season finale

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In the final biathlon event of the 2018-19 season, American Clare Egan recorded her first career World Cup podium finish, placing third in the mass start in Oslo, Norway. She hit 19 of 20 targets and crossed the finish line 10.4 seconds behind winner Hanna Oberg of Sweden. Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff finished second.

Egan, 31, made her Olympic debut at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, but considered retiring from biathlon at the end of the last season. “I decided that I wanted to do one more year, just for fun, just to see how much I could learn and how good a biathlete I could become,” Egan said in a U.S. Biathlon press release.

Her decision to continue has paid off: since the start of the 2018-19 season, Egan has posted the top eight finishes of her career (including three top-10 results). She concludes the season ranked 18th in the overall World Cup standings.

“I skied much faster this year than I have in the past and I think that was due to finally finding a good balance in my training, between working hard and resting. I did not train more, but the quality was much higher. I’m very excited for the next season,” Egan told U.S. Biathlon.