Nadal-Zverev semi could come down to intangibles

 - Stephanie Livaudais

Will the 'Chatrier factor' boost the 13-time champion, or will the German's unshakable self-belief get him over the line?

Rafael Nadal, Alexander Zverev, Madrid 2021, quarter-final© Antoine Couvercelle/FFT

A broken rib, a foot injury flare-up, a title-less campaign in the build-up to Roland-Garros: there are few who would normally be brave enough to bet against Rafael Nadal on the terre battue, but after a tough few months it seemed like the odds were stacked decidedly against him.

And so were the tennis oddsmakers, analysts and pundits, who had tipped 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz for Grand Slam greatness and heavily favoured world No.1 Novak Djokovic to win his third Coupe des Mousquetaires.

But after a fortnight in Paris, we’re throwing out the stats sheets and predictions.

Against all odds, 13-time Roland-Garros winner Nadal is back in the semi-finals, and his next opponent is a fellow ‘longshot’ in Alexander Zverev – one of the few people who called this match-up from the start.

“I just watched him practise,” Zverev said before the tournament began.

“And it's funny because me, my dad and [my coach] Sergi Bruguera watched him practise, and all of a sudden his forehand is just 20 miles an hour faster. He moves lighter on his feet.

“There is something about this court that makes him play 30 per cent better.”

For Nadal, it was exactly that intangible “something” that he tapped into on Court Philippe-Chatrier, especially when things started going awry in the second-set of his high-quality clash with defending champion Djokovic.

He saw his double-break lead evaporate as Djokovic seemed poised to wedge open a way back into the match.

But Nadal stunned everyone – including himself – with the way he raised his level and outlasted the world No.1 to win 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) late in the Parisian evening.

“It was a bit surprising to me too,” the Mallorcan admitted after the match.

“But at the end of the day, this court is always special for me. There’s something unique about it. It’s true that on the days when I’ve needed it the most, I’ve been able to once again find a level that I didn’t have before, even a few days ago.

“So I’m happy about this. Now that I’ve found a way to play at this level, the main thing will be to try and maintain it so I can have chances for what lies ahead.”

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2022, quarter-final© Julien Crosnier/FFT

Standing between Nadal and a 14th Roland-Garros final appearance will be No.3 seed Zverev, who was also pushed to the limit against 19-year-old Alcaraz on Tuesday.

The German avenged a lopsided defeat to the young Spaniard at the Madrid Open with a 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(7) battle on Chatrier.

The victory did more than just send Zverev into his second Roland-Garros semi-final in as many years: it was also his long-awaited first win over a top-10 player at a Grand Slam.

But while he might have snapped his 11-match losing streak against top-10 opposition with his victory over No.6 Alcaraz, Zverev knows there’s still work to be done if he wants to make it two in a row against Nadal next.

“At the end, yes, I have not beaten [Djokovic or Nadal] in majors, but I feel like I was very close,” Zverev said.

“I feel like I have had very difficult and tough matches against them. But there is a big difference between having a tough match and beating them. Still a major difference.

“Hopefully I can manage and take this win today and put it on the court on Friday.”

No second guessing

Both Nadal and Zverev will take the court on Philippe-Chatrier battle-tested and hitting their peak form, just in time for championship weekend.

For two players that have regularly scoffed at the odds and predictions, the biggest deciding factors between them might just be those intangible "somethings" that have wreaked havoc all fortnight.

These are the things that can’t be fully captured in numbers, like match toughness, Nadal’s ‘Chatrier factor’ and Zverev’s unshakable self-belief.

Looking at the head-to-head record between them, it’s tempting to give the clear advantage to Nadal.

He owns the 6-3 lead in their previous meetings, a balance that swings even more in his favour on clay (4-1) and at the Grand Slams (1-0).

'Physical and mental intensity'

But Nadal had to find the best tennis of his whole season just to make it past Djokovic and into the semi-finals, and the question of his fitness has come up once again after his four-hour epic.

“From my point of view, without a doubt that was the best match that I’ve played in the last four months,” he said after his win over Djokovic.

“But it’s no less true that it was perhaps due to my lack of practice in playing at this high level that I lost that second set.

“At the end of the day, playing well, maintaining a high physical and mental intensity – these things are a habit. And in these last three and a half months, it’s something that I haven’t been able to practise, whether in training or in competition.”

Rafael Nadal, Roland-Garros 2022, Simple Messieurs, 1/4 de Finale, Clement Mahoudeau / FFT

His opponent Zverev, meanwhile, has been doing nothing but practising his winning habit, especially in the build-up to Roland-Garros.

Zverev has reached the semi-finals or better at all the major tune-up events in Monte-Carlo, Madrid and Rome.

And the two players who defeated him there, Stefanos Tsitsipas (Monte-Carlo, Rome) and Alcaraz (Madrid), have all fallen by the wayside as the fortnight comes to a close.

“I do think that probably the Roland-Garros champion will be in the top half,” Zverev predicted before the tournament began.

It was far from a hot take, with Djokovic, Alcaraz, Nadal and Zverev himself all landing in that stacked part of the draw. But after two weeks in Paris, we’ve learned not to take anything for granted.

The top half may indeed produce the eventual champion. But with the championship match just over the horizon, there may still be a few more twists and turns in store, at a Roland-Garros that has been anything but predictable.

Alexander Zverev Roland-Garros 2022©Julien Crosnier / FFT