In a battle of the big forehands, ten-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal takes on the ‘Tower of Tandil’ Juan Martin del Potro. Nadal now stands just two victories away from another stunning clay court season, which has seen him win titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome already. For del Potro, it is a first French Open semifinal since 2009, but he has now reached the last four at a Slam twice inside a year and claimed a maiden Masters 1000 title. But can he stop Nadal?
Nadal and del Potro have met 14 times so far in their careers, with the Spaniard leading the head-to-head nine matches to five. That included victory in their first four matches, a run that began in 2007 in Miami and was ended in their fifth match two years later in Miami. That was the first of three victories for del Potro in 2009, the last of which was a stunning 6-2 6-2 6-2 win in the US Open semifinals, with del Potro going on to beat Federer in the final in a five-set thriller.
When del Potro returned to the Tour in 2011 they met four times, with Nadal winning them all, including an excellent 7-6 3-6 7-6 6-4 win in the fourth round at Wimbledon and a 1-6 6-4 6-1 7-6 win in the Davis Cup final. Nadal also beat del Potro in the 2013 Indian Wells final from a set down. But del Potro had his revenge, upsetting the Spaniard 6-2 6-4 in Shanghai later that year and beat Nadal in the 2016 Rio Olympic semifinals. But it was Nadal who won their last match, 4-6 6-3 6-0 6-2 in a rematch of the 2009 US Open semifinal.
Path to the semifinals
Nadal began his French Open campaign with a surprisingly hard-fought win against Simone Bolelli, having to save three set points in a third set tiebreak before prevailing 6-4 6-3 7-6. He was rather more comfortable in dispatching Guido Pella and Richard Gasquet 6-2 6-1 6-1 and 6-3 6-2 6-2, respectively. He then fought off the challenge of Germany’s Maximilian Marterer 6-3 6-2 7-6. In the quarterfinals he recovered from a set and a break down, helped by a rain delay, to beat Schwartzman 3-6 6-3 6-2 6-2.
It was not looking good for del Potro when he sluggishly dropped the first set to Nicolas Mahut, winning just a single game. But he turned it around impressively to win 1-6 6-1 6-2 6-4. He backed that up with straight sets wins against the soon to retire Julien Benneteau and Albert Ramos Vinolas, before taming the big serve of John Isner in a 6-4 6-4 6-4 win. He then emerged victorious from a tight four-set clash with Marin Cilic, winning 7-6 5-7 6-3 7-5.
How do they match up?
This will be a clash dominated by their respective forehands. Nadal’s is one of the best the game has ever seen, particularly on a clay court, where its rearing, kicking bounce make it so hard to deal with. But del Potro has weapons of his own, and they might just be enough to really hurt Nadal. When the Argentine hits his forehand, it stays hit. He has also been hitting his backhand with confidence so far in Paris, suggesting Nadal may have his work cut out.
As well as del Potro has played to reach the last four in Paris again, it is hard to see him having enough left to deliver a winning performance against Nadal. He is as good a competitor as anyone on Tour, but his repeated injury woes have left him without the match toughness that Nadal can call upon. The Spaniard was able to rob del Potro of his forehand in New York by attacking it, which proved a rewarding strategy indeed. With that in his mind and more in his legs, he should win in straight sets.