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Stephens eyeing up final glory as Nadal weathers storm

 

By Paul Newman

Sloane Stephens maintained her perfect record against fellow American Madison Keys as she blazed into the French Open final with a 6-4 6-4 win yesterday in a repeat of last year's US Open final.

The first all-American Roland Garros semi-final since 2002 saw 10th-seeded Stephens stay composed throughout as Keys, who has not won a set against her in three meetings, peppered the court with unforced errors.

Regardless of the final result, 25-year-old Stephens will become the first American other than the Williams sisters to break into the top five in the WTA rankings since Lindsay Davenport, Keys's coach, in 2006.

Tomorrow's opponent will be World No.1 Simona Halep, the two-time runner-up, who beat No.3 Garbine Muguruza 6-1 6-4.

"She's No.1 in the world for a reason," Stephens said of Halep. "I think that we'll just have to go out and compete. Someone has to win. Someone has to lose. Just go out, give it your all, and whoever wins, wins."

Tenth-seeded Stephens had never made it past the fourth round until now. After sitting out nearly a year because of surgery on her right foot in January 2017, she has soared up the rankings and has now made it to her second major final in nine months.

"Another great opportunity on Saturday, and I'm really looking forward to it," said Stephens.

"It's never easy playing someone from your country, let alone someone you actually care about and you're friends with," Stephens said. "It's very difficult. I think more when I play Madi. We are always competitive. But it's a little weird. There's not as much, 'Come ons' and things like that."

Halep reached her third French Open final, and held on to the World No.1 spot, with a straight-sets victory over Garbine Muguruza.

It will be the 26-year-old Romanian's fourth appearance in a major final, having also lost to Caroline Wozniacki in Australia in January.

Halep feels better equipped to finally break her duck in Paris. She said: "I have more experience now. I feel calm. I feel that I have to enjoy it today, the victory, because it was a great match.

"Then I have two more days until I play the final. So I will stay chilled. I will relax. We will see what is going to happen Saturday, but for sure I will fight for every ball."

Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro said that he will have "nothing to lose" in his French Open semi-final clash with Rafael Nadal today, after not even knowing whether he would play days before the tournament.

The former US Open champion, who almost retired from the sport two years ago after persistent wrist injuries, had said he would make a "last-minute decision" on his Roland Garros participation after suffering a leg injury at the Rome Masters. But fast-forward 12 days and the affable Del Potro is preparing to take on ten-time champion Nadal in his first French Open semi-final since 2009.

The enormity of the situation clearly dawned on him after beating Marin Cilic in the quarter-finals yesterday, as he sobbed tears of joy.

"I'm feeling so happy to make the right decision to play here. I am doing well," he said after edging third seed Cilic 7-6 (7/5) 5-7 6-3 7-5.

"I came here without big expectations, just seeing how my body feels match by match.

"Now I'm (in the) semi-finals, which means something great to me. So I have nothing to lose tomorrow. We'll see what can I do against the king of clay."

Nadal admitted the rain saved him from a shock French Open defeat.

The Spaniard needed a downpour on Wednesday to rescue him from a deluge of break points, five of which were converted by Diego Schwartzman.

Nadal, the undisputed king of clay, had lost his first set at Roland Garros since 2015 and was a break down in the second, but he regrouped during a 53-minute delay.

When the players came back on for half an hour, Nadal had rediscovered his serve and found his forehand, until at 5-3 30-15 the heavens opened again.

Yesterday, normal service resumed, Nadal reeling off the two points he needed to level the match, and then polishing off two more sets to crush this particular French revolution and secure his place in the semi-finals.

"Of course the stop yesterday helped because it was in a tough moment of my match," said Nadal.

"He was playing great, and I was playing too defensive. I felt that I was playing a little bit under more stress than usual, and he was able to take control of the point too many times.

"I played more aggressive. I continued the level of intensity that I played after the first stop. And, in my opinion, the match changed."

Schwartzman, a nuisance to the end, forced break points as Nadal served for the match, but the 32-year-old eventually wrapped up a 4-6 6-3 6-2 6-2 victory to take another step towards French Open title number 11.

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