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

Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

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Sifan Hassan sets marathon debut

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Sifan Hassan, who won 5000m and 10,000m gold and 1500m bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in an unprecedented triple, will make her 26.2-mile debut at the London Marathon on April 23.

Hassan, a 30-year-old Dutchwoman, said she will return to the track after the race, but how the London Marathon goes will play into whether she bids for the Olympic marathon in 2024.

“I want to see what I can do on the marathon distance, to make future decisions,” she posted on social media. “We’ll see if I will finish the distance or if the distance will finish me.”

Exhausted by her Olympic feat, Hassan reportedly went at least seven months after the Tokyo Games between training in track spikes. She finished fourth in the 10,000m and sixth in the 5000m at last July’s world championships in Eugene, Oregon.

“I really needed a break after the Tokyo Olympics,” Hassan said at worlds. “I was mentally crashed. I didn’t even care about running.”

London, billed as the best women’s marathon field in history, also boasts Olympic champion Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya, world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya, 2016 Olympic 10,000m champion Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia, 1500m world record holder Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia and the two fastest Americans in history, Emily Sisson and Keira D’Amato.

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