On Friday, his 36th birthday, Rafael Nadal found himself in familiar territory: the semifinals of Roland Garros for the 15th time. Generations of players have met him there and been flattened. This time around, the prospective roadkill was No. 3 seed Sascha Zverev, but for once, the odds didn’t look too grim for the 25-year-old. Zverev was playing the best tennis of his life at a major tournament; Nadal’s chronic foot pain has dogged him all season, and he was fatigued from two consecutive matches that crossed the four-hour mark, against Felix Auger-Aliassime and Novak Djokovic. This match promised similar punishment: conditions under the closed roof were hot and humid, and the players hadn’t even completed two sets in three hours. What had the makings of a grueling death march ended instead in quick and violent fashion at 7-6(8), 6-6, when Zverev slid into a running forehand and rolled his right ankle. He screamed and writhed in pain, left the court in a wheelchair, and returned on crutches to retire.
(You can watch the injury here, if you’re curious.)
Some of Zverev’s despair has to come from the knowledge that he could have won this match. For all his successes on tour, the Slams have eluded him. By dispatching the white-hot Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinals, Zverev ended his 0-11 career struggle against top-10 opponents at major tournaments. He looked prepared to fight in this semifinal. Conditions were also in his favor: Because it was raining at the beginning of the session, the roof on Philippe-Chatrier was closed, making conditions muggier and slower than Nadal prefers. (After losing one point, he looked at his box and threw up both hands to frame a big chunk of air, as if to say that the ball was moving like a watermelon.) In the first-set tiebreak, Zverev lined up four set points on Rafa, one of which he wasted with a botched volley, and some of which were erased with with Nadal heroism like this dipping forehand pass:
Nadal took it. Looking depleted by the efforts of that first set, the players opened the second with sloppy and uneasy tennis, breaking serve in eight of the first nine games. Amid all that ugly were a few compelling points of cat-and-mouse, including one 44-stroke exchange, as the physicality of the rallies took the life out of both men’s legs. They lurched towards another tiebreak, and then Zverev wiped out.
Nadal, who had kind words for his opponent afterwards, is no stranger to pain. He’s said that he’ll talk about his injury status only after the tournament, that he and his doctor have arrived at short-term fixes, but nothing that actually resolves the degenerative foot condition that still imperils his career. He did say that he’d rather have a new foot than a 14th title on Sunday.