Rafa Nadal’s invincibility on clay is being tested more regularly than you would expect and makes his forthcoming challenge at Roland Garros in a few weeks’ time, the more intriguing.
To be able to win these kind of matches, against young players, give me confidence with my body. It’s true that I have to do things better for tomorrow Rafa Nadal
The King of Clay, who usually mops up those titles leading to the French Open, has so far only collected one, Barcelona, having seen his challenges in Monte Carlo and Madrid end at the quarter-final stage.
The world No.2 has again reached the last eight at the Rome Masters where he has successfully lifted the trophy nine times in the last 16 years. Whether he can make it 10 titles now depends on Alexander Zverev who beat him comfortably in straight sets last week in Madrid.
The German, seeded 6, will have watched Denis Shapovalov with great interest as the young Canadian pushed the mighty Spaniard to the brink of defeat before capitulating himself in the tie-break of the deciding third set.
What should have been a straightforward win for Nadal, turned out to be a nightmare but like usual, the Spanish icon found a way to turn things around. What he hadn’t expected was the onslaught from Shapovalov’s racket which the Canadian launched from the opening moments.
The 22-year-old took command from the start as he streaked into a 4-0 lead seemingly breaking Nadal’s serve with ease while comfortably holding his own.
And he maintained the pressure in the second nearly gaining a double break but finally, in the fifth game, Nadal finally found his range with his forehand at the same time that Shapovalov’s serve lost its sting bringing the second seed back into the match and force a decider.
In the third, Nadal began to dominate but Shapovalov wouldn’t lie down, breaking his highly rated opponent to lead 3-1 with the match turning into a test of both players’ determination and physical fitness.
Nadal’s serve was now strong and despite the windy conditions, he held his nerve saving two match points at 5-6 to force the tiebreak where he took command striding into a 6-2 lead to finally secure his quarter-final place after three and a half hours 3-6 6-4 7-6(3).
“Is an important victory for me,” a relieved Nadal said. “To be able to win these kind of matches, against young players, give me confidence with my body. It’s true that I have to do things better for tomorrow (when he faces Zverev who beat Kei Nishikori 4-6 6-3 6-4).
“But the main thing today for me is recover physically,” he continued. “Have been a positive victory for me.”
Shapovalov added: “That’s why he’s won so many matches on clay. I mean, obviously he’s a great player. There’s no question about that… Of course, there’s a lot of positives. In the end I lost, so that’s it. As far as this week, it’s much better level-wise than the previous weeks. That’s how athletes are. If you lose, you lose. It’s not very positive.”
Dominic Thiem, the fourth seed, playing the last match on the day’s schedule and facing the last Italian in the field, Lorenzo Sonego, crashed out of the event 6-4 6-7(5) 7-6(5). After splitting sets, the two had to leave the court for about 20 minutes to allow for fans to leave under the strict COVID curfew rules on the first day of limited fans at the Foro Italico.
The break favoured Sonego who returned the stronger and while Thiem fought back to lead 5-3, he couldn’t close out the match.
“It’s amazing, an unbelievably emotional moment for me because I’m in Rome, in my Italy with fans for two sets,” Sonego said on court. “I’m so happy for this victory, for this match. Thiem is with Nadal the best player on clay.”
Earlier in the day, the top seeded Novak Djokovic had an easy afternoon breezing past Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-2 6-1 and will face fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Monte Carlo Champion, who defeated Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, last week’s Madrid finalist, 7-6(3) 6-2.
Djokovic leads the Greek 4-2 with their last meeting at the French semi-final going five sets won by the Serb.
“Obviously tomorrow is going to be a huge challenge for me,” Djokovic said. “I’m going to be ready for it. I’ve been practicing well and feeling good. I’ll make sure I prepare myself well for the next match.”
Tsitsipas remains wary. “He can play on all surfaces. We played each other at Roland Garros. I see this as an opportunity for me to do something better this time. I hope to be able to play the same tennis that I have been playing so far and be a challenge for him.”
With 18 aces, Reilly Opelkaof the US served his way past Russia’s Aslan Karatsev 7-6(6) 6-4 and will face qualifier Federico Delbonis from Argentina who in turn ousted Canada’s Felix Auger Aliassime 7-6(3) 6-1.
Finally, Russia’s Andrey Rublev, the seventh seed, toppled Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4 6-4 who will have to get past Lorenzo Sonego and the Italian crowd!