Rome, May 13 (EFE).- Nine-time champion Rafael Nadal rallied from deficits in each set and saved two match points in the decider before pulling out a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3) marathon victory over Denis Shapovalov in Thursday round-of-16 action at the Italian Open.
Playing in front of spectators for the first time this week at the Foro Italico, Nadal needed all of his legendary grit and determination to rally from a 6-3, 3-0 hole against a dangerous opponent playing at arguably his highest level of the season.
The Canadian struck the ball with impressive depth, pace and consistency from the baseline on Thursday and also showed the athleticism and stamina necessary to cope with countless long rallies against the king of clay.
Shapovalov raced out to a 4-0 lead in just 16 minutes with virtually impeccable play and then fought off a Nadal comeback to grab the opener on the strength of three service breaks.
The Spaniard dropped serve yet again in the second game of the second set and then found himself in dire straits when serving at 0-3, 0-30.
But Nadal managed to hold serve in that game before Shapovalov, in what proved to be a key turning point, got broken after squandering a 40-0 lead.
Although the Spaniard won six of seven games to take the second set, the momentum shifted back to Shapovalov’s side when he went up 3-1 in the decider.
Nadal got back on serve but then faced two match points when serving at 5-6, saving both of them thanks to unforced errors by the Canadian.
Those mistakes kept coming in the final set tiebreaker as a high-quality match ended anticlimactically.
“(It) is an important victory for me (to) be able to win matches like today, three hours and 27 (minutes), in the Barcelona final (against Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas) three hours and 38 (minutes), long matches,” Nadal said afterward.
“To be able to win these kinds of matches against young players gives me confidence with my body. It’s true that I have to do things better for tomorrow. But the main thing today for me is (to) recover physically.”
Next up for Nadal will be German world No. 6 Alexander Zverev, who upset the Spanish great last week en route to winning the Madrid Open title and battled past Japan’s Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 on Thursday.
In other men’s singles round-of-16 action, Austrian world No. 4 Dominic Thiem was stunned by 33rd-ranked Italian Lorenzo Sonego 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-5).
But Serbian world No. 1 Novak Djokovic cruised past Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-2, 6-1, fifth-ranked Tsitsipas topped Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 and Russian world No. 7 Andrey Rublev defeated Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4, 6-4.
In women’s singles, Australian world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and precocious American teenager Cori Gauff booked a quarterfinal showdown with straight-set wins on Thursday.
Barty rolled past Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova 6-3, 6-3 and Gauff upset Madrid Open champion Aryna Sabalenka 7-5, 6-3.
In other women’s round-of-16 action Thursday involving seeded players, sixth-ranked Ukrainian Elina Svitolina defeated 12th-ranked Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza 6-4, 6-2, ninth-ranked Czech Karolina Pliskova topped Russia’s Vera Zvonareva 7-5, 6-3 and the reigning French Open champion, 15th-ranked Pole Iga Swiatek, edged Czech Barbora Krejcikova 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5. EFE