PARIS — Roger Federer’s comeback at the French Open is over. But Rafael Nadal just keeps going as he usually does at Roland Garros after downing the Swiss 6-3 6-4 6-2 to reach a 12th final.
The 39th meeting of the tennis behemoths didn’t match the drama of their 2008 Wimbledon epic or 2017 Australian Open classic but will be remembered for one big thing, the wind.
Organizers were surely relieved the rain that caused havoc Wednesday didn’t resurface early Friday, as some forecasts suggested another complete washout was a possibility. Yet Mother Nature still sought to intervene. And did.
There was light drizzle for the captivating women’s semifinals before a huge breeze rose up for the men’s semifinals. Temperatures additionally struggled to top 17 degrees Celsius (63 Fahrenheit).
Federer and Nadal, who own 37 majors between them, took turns pausing before serves as gusts blew clay into their eyes and the ball danced once airborne.
“The conditions out there today have been so hard, so difficult to manage,” said Nadal. “Was the day to be just focused, accept all the adversities. That’s what I tried to do.”
The victorious Spaniard won’t know who he will encounter in the final until Saturday, since the second semifinal between world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and last year’s finalist Dominic Thiem was surprisingly suspended in a third set with Thiem leading the 15-time major champion 6-2 3-6 3-1. The rain made another visit.
When play was called off, however, at around 6:30 pm local time, the rain had stopped.
An annoyed Djokovic — seeking to win four straight grand slams for the second time in his career — had wanted play to be halted in the first set due to the playing conditions but he was denied by supervisor Andreas Egli.
Whoever eventually wins will be at a sizable disadvantage Sunday, bereft of the usual day off between the semis and finale as they try to dethrone Nadal.
Nadal said only last week that hailing from an island — Mallorca — he was accustomed to wind and adapts well to such breezy conditions. His heavily spun ground strokes help with control.
The numbers backed him up as the newly turned 33-year-old struck 33 winners, dovetailing with a mere 19 unforced errors.
Federer wasn’t dismal by any means, tallying 25 winners and 34 unforced errors.
The wind aside, clay is Nadal’s preferred surface. He improved to 6-0 at the French Open against his 37-year-old friend and 14-2 on dirt altogether.
Federer’s five-match winning streak over Nadal that stretched back to 2015 vanished, like last weekend’s summery conditions in the French capital.
But he can at least start to think about the grass following a likely break.
Even so, the 20-time grand slam champion felt it was a successful return to the French Open after missing the previous three editions to prepare for his preferred grass of Wimbledon.
“I thought it was a great tournament,” said Federer. “I really enjoyed it. Crowd support couldn’t have been better. Maybe one of the best ever in my entire 20-year career that I have been on tour at a slam.
“In terms of playing, I think I played really, actually, well. You know, I think I surprised myself maybe how deep I got in this tournament and how well I actually was able to play throughout.”
Federer called his Australian Open victory against Nadal two years one of the finest moments of his record-breaking career, and downing the 11-time champion at Roland Garros would have come close to topping that.
But for that to happen Federer needed to take every half chance — like an underdog in football facing Barcelona or Manchester City.
Despite the first set being about how to cope with the conditions, Federer said, he started well enough.
The 2009 champion earned a break point in the first game. He failed to capitalize and Nadal broke immediately for 2-0.
Even though Federer got back on serve, Nadal restored his break advantage by converting on his sixth chance at 3-2.
The second set, as Federer admitted, was truly his opportunity.
He led 2-0, threatened but couldn’t break Nadal at 4-3, and then was broken from 40-0 at 4-4.
The miniscule chance of a comeback fizzled.
“Second set, I think there is definitely the biggest regret to get broken at two love with the wind in my back,” said Federer. “If I can avoid that one, maybe the second set turns out to be different.”
Chanting his name
Nadal was now in full flow, doing his thing.
He ripped backhand passing shots, curled forehands down the line and defended well when Federer attacked.
Federer called him unique, despite seeing players come and go over the course of his 20-year career.
“I don’t even know who I need to go search for to go practice with somebody who plays like him,” said Federer.
“I was thinking that during the match. It’s just amazing how he plays from deep and then is able to bounce back and forth from the baseline. It’s just quite interesting.”
Relayed his comments, Nadal replied: “I don’t find any sparring partners, either, playing like Federer. There are no two people like Federer on this planet. Luckily, actually.”
Frustrated when a net-cord adversely affected a volley on break point at 1-1, Federer duly slammed a ball skywards.
Nadal’s combination of a drop shot and forehand flick to break for 4-1 in the third had much of the crowd on Philippe Chatrier gasping in appreciation.
But on Nadal’s second match point, the spectators began to chant Federer’s name, fully aware that this could have been his last ever appearance at Roland Garros.
The chants continued as he departed and Federer told reporters he wasn’t sure if he’d be back.
“Next year, just like with any other tournament, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens,” he said.
It was Nadal who left as the winner, again, at Roland Garros.