French Open 2018: Rafael Nadal faces Juan Martin del Potro in blockbuster semi-final; Dominic Thiem takes on giant-killing Marco Cecchinato

The French Open men’s singles semi-finals feature two outright favourites and two players who are playing with nothing to lose.

Seventh seed Dominic Thiem faces World No 72 Marco Cecchinato in the first semi-final on Friday, followed by the clash between 10-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal and fifth seed Juan Martin del Potro.

Here’s a look at their paths in Paris so far and how they stack up against each other.

Dominic Thiem (7) vs Marco Cecchinato

Head-to-head: First meeting

"I think for me it's time to move on to make a great step, because I'm turning 25 (in September). I'm not that young anymore,” Thiem had said before his quarter-final match Alexander Zverev.

Seventh seed Dominic Thiem faces World No 72 Marco Cecchinato in the first semi-final , followed by the clash between 10-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal and fifth seed Juan Martin del Potro. Reuters

Dominic Thiem faces Marco Cecchinato in the first semi-final , followed by the clash between champion Rafael Nadal and fifth seed Juan Martin del Potro. Reuters

The Austrian, who has been a constant in the top-10 over the last two years, is one of the most talented players of his generation but hasn’t yet had a big breakthrough at the Grand Slams. While his best result at all the other Majors is the fourth round, it’s on the claycourts of Roland Garros that he has thrived.

In the last two years, Thiem has been knocked out at the semi-final stage of French Open by the eventual title winner - Novak Djokovic in 2016 and Nadal in 2017. This year, he couldn’t have asked for a better opponent to make that “great step” - he plays the unseeded Cecchinato, who had never won a Grand Slam main draw match before this tournament.

Thiem is on a nine-match winning streak having won the Lyon title just before Roland Garros and has had a decent season on clay - quarter-finals at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and final in Rome. He is also the only player to have defeated Nadal on the red dirt this year.

His wins over Kei Nishikori in the fourth round and Zverev in the last-eight were particularly impressive and he has an excellent chance of making his maiden Major final.

However, his 25-year-old Italian opponent is on a giant-killing spree - Cecchinato defeated 10th seed Pablo Carreno Busta, 8th seed David Goffin and 12-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic in back-to-back matches to reach the semi-finals.

In 2016, Cecchinato was suspended for 18 months by the Italian tennis federation for match-fixing but the ban was overturned completely because of irregularities regarding how the evidence was gathered. He is now looking to move past that scandal and is hoping to build on what has been a breakthrough year for him.

The Italian won his first ATP World Tour title at the Hungarian Open as a lucky loser and will need some more luck to go his way on Friday to pull off another upset. This battle will please all the connoisseurs of the one-handed backhand but Thiem’s big-stage experience should help him through.

Rafael Nadal (1) vs Juan Martin del Potro (5)

Head-to-head: Nadal leads 9-5 (2-0 on clay)

"I thought that after nine years I will play a different player, not Rafa or Roger. But all my semi-finals in Grand Slams were against them. The last one in US Open I lost against Rafa. In Wimbledon I lost against Djokovic. Here with Federer,” Del Potro said after his quarter-final victory.

The tall Argentine has made five Major semi-finals in his career and lost four of them. The only one that he won was in 2009 at the US Open, when he defeated Nadal and Federer back-to-back to win his only Grand Slam trophy.

Like Thiem, 29-year-old Del Potro has found it challenging to play in the same era as the “Big Four” though it has been injuries that have blighted what could have been a very successful career.

Two years ago, Del Potro had almost considered giving up on tennis when he was sidelined after wrist surgeries and had fallen out of the top-1000 in the ATP rankings. However, his resilience helped him climb back into the top-10 and his blistering forehand still continues to be one of the best shots in the sport.

Until a fortnight ago, the 6’6”-tall Del Potro wasn’t even sure if he would play at Roland Garros due to a groin injury that plague his claycourt season. He has surpassed all expectations as his last-minute decision to participate has ended up with him in the final-four.

But against the 16-time Major champion Nadal, Del Potro has his work cut out. The Spaniard has never lost at Roland Garros once he has made the semi-final (20-0). In their last meeting at the US Open semi-final in 2017, Nadal had to produce some of his best tennis to get past the “Tower of Tandil”, as Del Potro is fondly called, but on clay the odds are heavily in the top seed’s favour.

Del Potro was stretched to four sets against third seed Marin Cilic in the last-eight on Thursday but he has spent almost the same amount of time on the court as Nadal at Roland Garros so far (13 hours, 10 minutes over 16 sets for Nadal and 12 hours and 59 minutes over 17 sets for Del Potro).

Nadal has lost one match on clay this year and won his 11th titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona along with an eighth trophy in Italy. He is aiming to complete La Undecima at Roland Garros, and despite not being at his ruthless best over the last 12 days, he looks unstoppable on his beloved clay.

It would take a superhuman effort from Del Potro - a serving masterclass, pulverising groundstrokes and acute focus over five sets - to have a chance at dethroning the King of Clay.


Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 12:43 PM

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