Rafael Nadal wins French Open five-setter, sets Novak Djokovic clash

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PARIS — By the end of only the third five-setter Rafael Nadal has played in 112 career matches at Roland Garros, as the sun and temperature descended and the chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” filled the evening air, the man known as the King of Clay showed precisely what this meant to him.

With every sprint-slide-and-stretch to reach a seemingly unreachable shot off the yellow racket of his opponent, Felix Auger-Aliassime; with every right-to-a-corner winner; with every well-struck volley, Nadal would hop or throw an uppercut or scream “Vamos!” — and, often, all of the above.

Nadal got through his first serious test of this French Open by edging No. 9 seed Auger-Aliassime 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 across nearly 4 1/2 hours of even, entertaining tennis in the fourth round Sunday at Court Philippe Chatrier.

“Being honest, every match that I play here, I don’t know if it’s going to be my last match here in Roland Garros. … That’s my situation now,” said Nadal, who turns 36 on Friday. “That’s why I am just trying to enjoy as much as possible.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

And the reward for coming through this one? A tantalizing matchup against rival Novak Djokovic in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.

Nadal improved to 3-0 in five-set matches at the clay-court tournament he has dominated the way no one ever has dominated any Grand Slam event. Overall he is 109-3 here, and two of those defeats came against Djokovic, including in last year’s semifinals in their most recent showdown.

The significance of the rivalry: Tuesday’s meeting will be their 59th, more than any other two men have played each other in the sport’s professional era. Djokovic leads 30-28, although Nadal has a 7-2 advantage at the French Open.

“We have a lot of history together,” said Nadal, who attended the Champions League final Saturday night won by his favorite club, Real Madrid, and didn’t get back to his room until after midnight.

Looking at the larger picture, the formerly No. 1-ranked Nadal’s record 13 championships at Roland Garros are part of his haul of 21 Grand Slam trophies, a record for men. The currently No. 1-ranked Djokovic, twice the title winner at the French Open, is just one behind Nadal in the total Slam count, tied with Roger Federer at 20.

Djokovic beat 15th-seeded Diego Schwartzman 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 earlier Sunday and has won all 12 sets he’s played in the tournament.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Djokovic said about playing Nadal, “and probably the biggest one that you can have here in Roland Garros. I’m ready for it.”

The other quarterfinal in their half of the men’s bracket is between No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev, the 2020 U.S. Open runner-up, and No. 6 Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old from Spain who leads the tour with four titles this year. Zverev beat 131st-ranked qualifier Bernabe Zapata Miralles 7-6 (11), 7-5, 6-3, and Alcaraz displayed a back-to-the-net, between-the-legs lob while wrapping up the day’s schedule with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 victory over No. 21 Karen Khachanov.

Two women’s quarterfinals were set, too: 18-year-old Coco Gauff against 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in an all-American matchup, and 2021 U.S. Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez of Canada against 59th-ranked Martina Trevisan of Italy.

The remaining fourth-round matches are Monday.

Might be tough for any of them to live up to what Nadal and Auger-Aliassime produced as the temperature dipped below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a 10 mph wind made it feel even chillier as 9 p.m. approached during the denouement.

Wrapped in souvenir orange French Open towels and blankets of various hues, spectators appreciated every last drop of drama, singing both players’ first names and rising to their feet to applaud the many spectacular exchanges. One member of the audience, however, did not stick around for the fifth set: Toni Nadal, who is Rafael’s uncle and coached him to 16 of his Grand Slam titles but now is helping coach Auger-Aliassime. Uncle Toni, as he’s known to many, stayed away from both players’ guest boxes — how could he choose a side? — and instead sat in the front row right behind one of the baselines, applauding both men’s winners and avoiding showing any delight derived from anyone’s miscues, until departing at the outset of the deciding set.

He missed quite a finish.

Nadal used increasingly aggressive tactics, moving forward when possible and pouncing on any short ball from his foe. Returning while up 4-3, Nadal snapped his left wrist for a forehand passing winner that left him yelling and punching the air — and left Auger-Aliassime, a semifinalist at the 2021 U.S. Open but 0-2 for his career at the French Open until this year, hanging his head.

That gave Nadal two break points, and he converted the second with a backhand winner. Soon enough, it all was over.

“He raised his level when he needed to,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Nadal hadn’t dropped a set in the tournament until facing Auger-Aliassime, a 21-year-old from Canada equipped with a big serve and forehand.

“I suffered,” Nadal said.

Since starting the season with a 20-0 record, including an Australian Open title in January when Djokovic was not allowed to participate because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19, Nadal has dealt with a rib injury and a recurrence of the chronic pain in his left foot that has troubled him for years. He has said repeatedly in Paris that he had no idea how well he’d be able to play.

If he was hurting Sunday was impossible to know — and, more to the point, impossible to tell. His movement was unhindered, his relentlessness intact.

He will have time to recover and get ready himself to take on Djokovic, who spent roughly half as much time on court Sunday.

“These are special matches,” Nadal said. “I don’t know if I’ll have what it takes to beat someone like Novak, but I’m going to try.”

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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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