Rafael Nadal, two wins from record, gets Novak Djokovic in French Open semifinal

2021 French Open - Day Eleven
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PARIS — Novak Djokovic wheeled toward his guest box in a nearly empty Court Philippe Chatrier as midnight neared and let out one yell, two yells, three, four.

Once two points from a straight-set victory and seemingly well on his way to a French Open semifinal showdown against Rafael Nadal, Djokovic had to deal with so much that went awry: consecutive unforced errors that gave away a tiebreaker; a 21 1/2-minute delay while spectators left because of a COVID-19 curfew; a face-down tumble that drew blood from his left palm.

Still, the top-seeded Djokovic held on and moved on, pulling out the quarterfinal victory against No. 9 Matteo Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 Wednesday night.

“This match had it all: falls, crowd, break. It was a lot of intensity. I just felt under tension the entire time,” Djokovic said. “The reaction (at) the end was just me liberating that tension that was building up for the entire match.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Now comes a semifinal Friday against a familiar foe in a rematch of last year’s Roland Garros final, but a round earlier: Nadal, who is 105-2 in the clay-court tournament.

“We know each other well,” the third-seeded Nadal said. “Everybody knows that in these kind of matches, anything can happen.”

Nadal’s French Open set streak ended earlier Wednesday. His pursuit of a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title — and what would be a 14th in Paris alone — remained very much intact, however.

Nadal shrugged off dropping a set at his favorite event for the first time in two years by whipping violent forehands punctuated with fist pumps and yells of “Vamos!” en route to a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 victory over 10th-seeded Diego Schwartzman.

“For anybody, it’s very difficult to play against him. He’s feeling very comfortable on court,” Schwartzman said after falling to 1-11 against Nadal. “He’s Rafa, and he’s always finding the way.”

Nadal reached his 14th semifinal in Paris; Djokovic his 11th. It’s Djokovic’s 40th trip to the final four at any major, Nadal’s 35th. Nadal and Roger Federer share the men’s mark of 20 Grand Slam titles; Djokovic is at 18.

The semifinal will be the superstar duo’s 58th matchup, more than any other two men in the sport’s professional era; Djokovic leads 29-28. But Nadal is ahead 10-6 in Slam meetings, 7-1 at the French Open.

“I’m confident. I believe I can win,” Djokovic said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”

The other men’s semifinal Friday is No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. No. 6 Alexander Zverev.

There are four first-time Grand Slam semifinalists left in the women’s bracket, something that last happened at a major during the 1978 Australian Open. On Thursday, Maria Sakkari plays Barbora Krejcikova, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova plays Tamara Zidansek.

Djokovic was so close to advancing when he led the third-set tiebreaker against 2019 U.S. Open semifinalist Berrettini 5-4. But after accumulating merely 14 unforced errors over about 2 1/2 hours up to then, Djokovic committed two in a row — a nervy forehand into the net, then a backhand into the net — and lost that set, drawing roars from a crowd hoping for more tennis.

The number of people allowed in the 15,000-seat main stadium was limited to 1,000 for each of the first 10 days of the tournament because of pandemic-related restrictions, but that limit was raised to 5,000 on Wednesday. The start of play for Djokovic-Berrettini was bumped up an hour to 8 p.m., and the 9 p.m. curfew that had been in place was moved to 11 p.m.

They did the wave, added some atmosphere and kept chair umpire James Keothavong a bit busy — especially when it was time to empty the stadium.

When the curfew arrived, there were jeers and whistles and some slow movers, so Djokovic and Berrettini — who seemed particularly buoyed by the prodding he received from fans — gathered their belongings and left the court until the match could resume.

Berrettini said that when action returned, his legs felt like they were “made of marble.”

“It’s a shame. It’s something that I don’t like,” he said about the delay, adding that he understood the need for special rules during the pandemic.

Berrettini didn’t play a point in the fourth round because the player he was supposed to face, Federer, withdrew with an eye to being ready for Wimbledon. In Djokovic’s previous match, he dropped the first two sets against another Italian, 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti.

Sure, Berrettini produced a trio of break points in the opening set Wednesday, but converted none and never earned another such chance. But Djokovic needed to do a little extra work to finish the job.

Nadal, meanwhile, entered his quarterfinal with a 35-set run at Roland Garros that began during the 2019 final. That grew to 36, before Schwartzman outplayed him for a stretch.

“I don’t pretend to come here and not (lose) sets. Is not my mindset to come here and just thinking (losing) a set is going to be a disaster for me. I mean, that’s part of the game,” Nadal said. “The thing that matters is how you recover from a set lost.”

At a set apiece and Schwartzman up 4-3 in the third, this is how Nadal sized things up: “That was the moment to make it happen.”

As if wanting something were enough to will it into existence, he won the next nine games, leaving Schwartzman muttering to himself and bouncing his racket off the clay.

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Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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