Rafael Nadal to face Novak Djokovic in French Open semifinal

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Spain's Rafael Nadal clenches his fist as he plays Argentina's Diego Schwartzman during their quarterfinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium Wednesday, June 9, 2021 in Paris. (Michel Euler/AP)

PARIS — Two points from a straight-set victory, Novak Djokovic seemingly was well on his way to a French Open semifinal showdown against Rafael Nadal when so much went awry Wednesday night.

Consecutive unforced errors by the top-seeded Djokovic helped give away a tiebreaker to barrel-chested Matteo Berrettini. Then there was a 21 1/2-minute delay in the fourth set while the first spectators allowed to attend a night session at Court Philippe Chatrier were cleared out because of a COVID-19 curfew. And a face-first stumble by Djokovic drew blood from his left palm when he braced himself against the court.

Still, Djokovic held on and moved on, pulling out the quarterfinal victory against No. 9 Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in a match that ended shortly before midnight with Djokovic yelling toward his entourage.

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 at Roland Garros.

"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 the clay-court major tournament for the first time in two years by whipping violent forehands punctuated with first 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.

The other men’s semifinal Friday will be 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 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.

"Take your seats quickly," he admonished the crowd in French as some fashionably late folks scurried to their spot at the outset.

Later, people sitting behind Djokovic gave him a hard time, leading to a couple of requests from Keothavong for quiet — and one glare and bellow from the player. Djokovic had his supporters, too, of course, and there was a pair of Serbian flags draped over a railing in the upper section, one with the word "Idemo" ("Let’s go!") in blue ink.

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 hammers his serves and forehand, throwing the full force of his 6-foot-5 frame and more than 200 pounds into each stroke. Djokovic’s approach is more subtle, all about touch and angles and court coverage.

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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