CHENNAI: The denouement seemed far away. More than three hours in, Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev had only finished 23 games and a tie-break. With the 24th poised at 40-30, Nadal trying to hold serve for the first time in five attempts to force a second set tiebreak, the conclusion seemed hours away. Then, in the blink of an eye, Zverev's world literally came crashing down.
The German, who had dominated vast swathes of the encounter till then, tried to retrieve a Nadal forehand from behind the baseline when he rolled his ankle and fell down. His cries of agony suggested that the match was over. The broadcaster refused to show any replays of the incident — always a bad sign — and the 25-year-old had to be escorted off the court in a wheelchair. A few minutes later, he emerged with the help of crutches to confirm that he wouldn't be able to continue. Both Nadal and he embraced before the German, disconsolate and in obvious pain, left the arena.
Even before the first semifinal began, it was clear that both players would be in for a testing evening. With the translucent roof closed, the conditions would be humid, heavy and muggy. It had the potential to throw both players off their game. On Friday morning, both of them had practised outdoors so they weren't clearly expecting this weather.
While the Spaniard, who will play for a 14th French Open and a 22nd Slam on Sunday, took more time to adjust to these conditions, Zverev adjusted almost from the get-go. Nadal's shots from the baseline did not have their traditional zing — he had zero forehand winners till 80 minutes into the match — and the 25-year-old capitalised by winning four of the first six games in the opening stanza.
Nadal, who celebrated his 36th birthday on Friday, was already drenched in sweat because of the conditions.
With even his shorts dripping with sweat, he resorted to not carrying any balls in his pocket. On the other side of the net, Zverev looked calm and in control of the situation. He was getting a high percentage of his first serves to land in the right spots and his forehand was working like a charm, two of his key weapons.
But one thing that Nadal has shown time and again, including in the last few days, is that he doesn't have to be at his best. He's the master at winning the moments that really count and that's what he did to pocket the opening set that went for 91 physically draining, mentally-exhausting minutes.
One shot will ultimately be played on loop in highlights packages on Saturday. Down 5-6 in the tie-break, Nadal, not even in the same postcode, while on the run, delivered a stunning forehand crosscourt passing shot that left Zverev speechless. Having already saved three set points, the Spaniard did not need another invitation to close out the tie-break. He was behind the eight ball for a vast majority of that set but robbed his opponent at the end.
It was a similar story in the second set as well. Nadal lost his serve four times to trail 3-5. At one point, Zverev was two points away from the third set before two double faults in a minute handed Nadal a way back, again.
Both players had more chances to win the set before the untimely end to an utterly gripping encounter.