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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

WATCH LIVE: French Open men’s semifinals on NBC Sports, streaming

Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro
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Rafael Nadal is two wins from his 11th French Open title, but his semifinal opponent knows what it’s like to topple the great Spaniard on sport’s biggest stage.

Argentine Juan Martin del Potro will take a swing at becoming the first man to beat Nadal in the final four of Roland Garros. That’s right, Nadal is 20-0 in his career in French Open semifinals and finals.

NBC Sports coverage of the men’s semifinals starts at 11 a.m. across all time zones on NBC and 11 a.m. ET/8 a.m. PT on NBCSN.

The Nadal-del Potro winner gets Austrian Dominic Thiem in Sunday’s final. The No. 7 seed Thiem, who handed Nadal his last two losses on clay (and is 3-5 vs. Nadal on the surface since the start of 2016), beat 72nd-ranked Italian Marco Cecchinato 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1 in Friday’s early semifinal.

WATCH LIVE: French Open men’s semifinals — STREAM LINK

Two of del Potro’s biggest career wins came against Nadal in semifinals — en route to his only Grand Slam title at the 2009 U.S. Open (dominating 6-2, 6-2, 6-2) and at the Rio Olympics (5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (5).

But none of del Potro’s five wins in 14 matches against Nadal have come on clay. Their only meeting on the surface came at the 2007 French Open, when Nadal swept 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 before del Potro’s breakthrough two years later.

Ted Robinson handles play-by-play for NBC’s coverage, joined by analysts John McEnroe and Mary Carillo. This is NBC’s 36th straight year broadcasting the French Open.

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

Rafael Nadal powers into U.S. Open final

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal is one win from capping a career-turnaround season with a 16th Grand Slam title, following one of the most magnificent hours of hard-court tennis of his life.

Nadal, after dropping the first set, reeled off nine straight games en route to beating Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 in the U.S. Open semifinals on Friday night.

The Spaniard is an overwhelming favorite Sunday against South African Kevin Anderson, the lowest-ranked man (No. 32) to make a U.S. Open final since rankings were introduced in 1973.

Nadal’s play was exquisite those last three sets against Del Potro, a player so dangerous that his forehand is now associated with Thor’s Hammer.

He neutralized the tall Argentine’s power, silenced an Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd spotted with Albiceleste jerseys and moved like we’re accustomed to seeing on clay courts.

Nadal eyes his third U.S. Open title and first since 2013, when he was the world’s best player. He returned to No. 1 this season, after a dip in 2015 and 2016, when he won zero Grand Slams and dropped to No. 10 in the rankings.

“Some troubles, injuries, tough moments,” Nadal said on court after his win Friday. “This year since the beginning has been a very emotional year.”

The comeback began in January. Nadal should have won the Australian Open but squandered a fifth-set lead in the final to longtime rival Roger Federer.

Nadal bagged his most coveted crown, a 10th French Open in June, and regained the No. 1 ranking last month. But he came to New York without a hard-court title since January 2014.

As incredible as Nadal has played here, the draw parted like the Red Sea for him. Past champions Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka withdrew before the tournament. Del Potro, who beat Nadal in an epic Rio Olympic semifinal, knocked out Federer in the quarterfinals Wednesday.

If Nadal lifts the trophy on Sunday, he will have done it without having faced a single top-25 player. Never before has a man or woman won a U.S. Open without facing a player ranked outside the top 10.

Anderson, who is 31 years old and 6-foot-8, beat Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in an earlier semifinal Friday. He is 0-4 against Nadal.

In the women’s final on Saturday (4 p.m. ET), Madison Keys meets Sloane Stephens in the first all-American matchup since Venus and Serena Williams in 2002.

Keys, 22, and Stephens, 24, are both first-time Grand Slam finalists. One will become the first American woman other than Venus and Serena to win a Slam since Jennifer Capriati at the 2002 Australian Open.

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