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Rafael Nadal makes French Open final, eyes record-tying title

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PARIS (AP) — Rafael Nadal improved to 11-0 in French Open semifinals. To get to 11-0 in French Open finals, he’ll need to get past the only man who has beaten him on red clay over the last two seasons.

After dealing with some tight moments early, Nadal overwhelmed 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 the rest of the way Friday.

The No. 1-ranked Nadal compiled a 35-20 edge in winners while making only 19 unforced errors Friday.

Nadal saved three break points at 1-all in the opening set and another three at 4-all. After he held there, that was pretty much that for del Potro.

Nadal broke to take that set and was on his way, taking 14 of the last 17 games.

“The first set was very difficult, with too many chances for Juan Martin,” Nadal said. “I am a little bit fortunate to win the first set.”

This was the No. 5-seeded del Potro’s first semifinal at Roland Garros since 2009. He missed the tournament every year from 2013-16 because of injuries, including three operations on his left wrist. In the fourth game Friday, del Potro clutched at his left hip after being wrong-footed by one shot from Nadal and was visited by a doctor at the next changeover.

Soon enough, he was yelling at himself, the very picture of exasperation thanks to Nadal’s relentless ball-tracking and shotmaking.

NBC’s live coverage of the French Open continues on Saturday (women’s final) and Sunday (men’s final) at 9 a.m. ET both days. NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will also stream the finals.

On Sunday, Nadal will face No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian who reached his first Grand Slam final by ending the surprising run of 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1.

Over the past two seasons, Nadal is 49-2 on red clay, with both losses coming against Thiem: in the quarterfinals at Rome in May 2017, and the quarterfinals at Madrid in May 2018.

“He’s an amazing player,” Nadal said. “He’s a player with big power. He’s playing with big confidence. … I know I have to play at my best. I know I have to improve a little bit.”

One big difference in this meeting is that those two matches that went Thiem’s way were best-of-three-set events. The French Open, like all Grand Slam tournaments, is best-of-five for men.

Nadal is now 85-2 for his career at Roland Garros, with a record 10 championships. He is 110-2 in all best-of-five matches on red clay.

“He’s a big favorite against everybody,” Thiem said. “Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan.”

Thiem has been to the semifinals in Paris three years in a row. He lost to eventual champions Novak Djokovic in 2016 and Nadal in 2017.

This time, Thiem instead faced Cecchinato (cheh-key-NAH’-toe), a 25-year-old from Sicily who never had won a Grand Slam match until this tournament and was the lowest-ranked men’s semifinalist at the clay-court major in 19 years. Cecchinato was accused of match-fixing and suspended for 18 months in 2016, but he appealed, and his punishment was dropped on a technicality.

After dropping the first two sets he played in the opening round, Cecchinato came back to win that match in five sets, then proceeded to string together upsets. He beat No. 10 seed Pablo Carreno Busta in the third round and No. 8 David Goffin in the fourth before stunning 12-time major champion Djokovic in the quarterfinals.

But Checchinato could not quite keep up with Thiem and his big baseline game. Cecchinato made some headway by repeatedly using drop shots, but Thiem eventually started tracking them down well.

The pivotal part of the match was the second-set tiebreaker. Both played superbly — and both had chances to end it. Thiem went ahead 6-3, but wasted three set points there, including a bad volley into the net at 6-4 that left him chewing ruefully on his left index finger.

“It was not a very nice feeling,” Thiem said.

A fourth set point for Thiem was erased with — what else? — a drop shot by Cecchinato.

Thiem had to weather three set points for Cecchinato, at 7-6, 9-8 and 10-9. Thiem got to 10-all with a drop shot of his own.

At long last, Thiem converted his fifth set point when Cecchinato sent a forehand long. The third set was dominated by Thiem, who raced to a 4-0, two-break lead in 12 minutes.

“That was definitely the key to the match,” Cecchinato said. “To get to a set apiece would have changed the match.”

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

Alina Zagitova wins Rostelecom Cup; Gracie Gold withdraws

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova dominated the Rostelecom Cup, while Gracie Gold withdrew before Saturday’s free skate at her first competition in 22 months, citing emotional stress.

Zagitova skated a flawed free, but still totaled 222.95 points and prevailed by 24.94 over countrywoman Sofia Samodurova. Zagitova qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international competition, which takes the top six skaters from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Gold, coming back from treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, was in last place of 10 skaters after struggling with jumps in Friday’s short program.

Gold, a Sochi Olympian and two-time U.S. champion, later tweeted that she withdrew because competing in the free skate would be damaging to her mental health and confidence.

“It was a difficult decision to make, but ultimately I need to put my mental health first and focus on the big picture,” was tweeted from Gold’s account. “Looking forward, I need to keep improving both my physical and mental condition. I thought checking into treatment last fall was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but skating my short program last night might have topped it. I do not want to undo the tremendous progress I’ve made in these last few months.”

The Grand Prix season continues next week with Nathan Chen headlining Internationaux de France, the last event before the Grand Prix Final.

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Zagitova, 16, is undefeated in three events this season and owns the world’s top overall score (238.43) by a whopping 14.12 points. However, Japanese 16-year-old Rika Kihira has the highest total on the Grand Prix of 224.31.

Zagitova struggled Saturday with the difficult triple Lutz-triple loop combination and doubled a flip at the end of her free skate.

Her primary rival last season, countrywoman Yevgenia Medvedeva, has finished second or third in her four competitions in the last year and likely must reach the podium next week in France for a chance at the Grand Prix Final and her first matchup with Zagitova since PyeongChang.

It’s likely that no U.S. woman makes the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year, after never previously going back-to-back years without a qualifier. U.S. champion Bradie Tennell likely must win in France to reach the Final.

Earlier Saturday, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu won the men’s event, hours after twisting his right ankle in a hard practice fall. Hanyu hopped on a crutch backstage and said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final and Japanese Nationals later in December. More here on Hanyu’s day.

Russian favorites Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin won the pairs’ and ice dance titles, respectively, qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

Tarasova and Morozov, two-time world medalists, posted 220.25 points, moving up to No. 2 in the world behind French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who were not in the Rostelecom field. None of the Olympic pairs’ medalists are competing this fall. Earlier Saturday, Tarasova received five stitches after cutting her chin in a practice crash into the boards.

In dance, Stepanova and Bukin tallied 199.43, keeping them close to U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue in the world rankings. Those two couples face off for the first time this season at the Grand Prix Final.

The top returning couple this season, French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, competes next week at the top international level for the first time since winning a third world title in March. They are not eligible for the Grand Prix Final after withdrawing from last week’s NHK Trophy due to Cizeron’s back injury.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Ashley Wagner on her competitive future, coaching

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Rostelecom Cup, hops on crutch to press conference

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Yuzuru Hanyu won Rostelecom Cup by nearly 30 points, then hopped on a crutch backstage.

The double Olympic champion twisted his right ankle in a hard practice fall Saturday morning, then several hours later had the highest-scoring free skate with three quadruple jumps.

Hanyu said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final in three weeks — and a showdown with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno and, likely, world champion Nathan Chen according to The Associated Press.

“It really hurts,” Hanyu said, according to Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “This injury made me change my program, and sadly I couldn’t perform the way I wanted. I could have done better.”

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Hanyu apologized to a TV camera following his free skate, after falling and popping an Axel on his last two jumps.

Last November, Hanyu damaged right ankle ligaments in a practice fall, forcing him off the ice for more than a month. He said this injury is not as bad. Still, coach Brian Orser said “it was a big question” whether Hanyu would withdraw before the free skate, according to Olympic Channel.

Hanyu endured, taking out the quadruple loop that he fell on in practice but still adding 10 points to his lead from Friday’s short program. For the first time in nine seasons, Hanyu won his two Grand Prix Series qualifying events, cruising into December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final.

Georgian Morisi Kvitelashvili took second, followed by Japanese Kazuki Tomono.

Two other men who came to Moscow with Grand Prix Final hopes — Russian Mikhail Kolyada and Canadian Keegan Messing — struggled in Friday’s short program and could not get onto the podium, placing fourth and fifth. They won’t be at the Final, assuming Chen finishes in the top six at next week’s event in France.

Rostelecom Cup continues later Saturday with the free programs for ice dance, pairs and women, streaming live on NBC Sports Gold.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Ashley Wagner on her future, role as coach