By Natalia Arriaga
Madrid, May 5 (EFE).- Rafael Nadal has reached the home stretch of the Madrid Open after narrowly overcoming David Goffin 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (11-9) on Thursday in a round-of-16 contest in which he was pushed around more than usual from the baseline and had to stave off four match points.
Playing in his first clay-court tournament of the season and just his second match since sustaining a stress fracture in one of his ribs at a hard-court event in Indian Wells, California, in March, the world No. 4 was clearly far from his best level.
But as has happened countless times in his storied career, his defensive skills, never-say-die attitude and clutch play – including a couple of drop-shot winners in the third-set tiebreaker – carried him over the finish line.
Nadal lost his serve midway through the first set after receiving a warning for taking excessive time between points, but he quickly recovered from a 2-3 deficit to win four games in a row and clinch the opening set.
The 21-time Grand Slam champion then seemed headed for a routine victory when he grabbed a 5-3 lead in the second set.
Nadal was striking the ball with authority off both sides and appeared to be finding his rhythm after a six-week injury absence, but some loose errors when serving for the match at 5-4 opened the door for Goffin and allowed him to barge through.
Just as the Spaniard had done in the first set, the world No. 60 captured the last four games of the second set to force a decider.
In the third set, the Belgian tried to use drop shots and potent drives to the corners to dictate play.
But with neither man able to establish full control and both plagued by some erratic play, the match came down to a third-set tiebreaker.
In that “breaker,” the Spaniard raced out to a 4-1 lead, only for Goffin to charge back to win five straight points and give himself two match points.
The Belgian got himself into that position thanks to a series of point-winning forehands, but when serving at 6-5 he netted a shot off that side to hand Nadal a lifeline.
The Spaniard faced two more match points when trailing 6-7 and then again when down 8-9, but he saved both of them with drop-shot winners.
Finally, on his own fourth match point, the five-time Madrid Open champion clinched the victory in over three hours when Goffin hit a forehand just wide of the sideline.
“Three hours and 10 (minutes) on court, that helps to increase my physical performance. A very important victory, saving match points. That’s confidence, that gives me the chance to keep going. I need matches and I need a day like today to be fitter sooner,” the 2022 Australian Open champion said, clearly referring to his hopes of being in peak physical shape by the start of the French Open on May 22.
Nadal will face off in Friday’s quarterfinals of this ATP Tour Masters 1000 event against either his ninth-ranked countryman, 18-year-old sensation Carlos Alcaraz, or Great Britain’s Cameron Norrie, the world No. 11. EFE