Rafael Nadal endured another slow start at the French Open on Saturday before finding his form to defeat Italy’s Fabio Fognini 7-6 (7/5), 6-4, 6-4 and qualify for the Last 16.
In the end it was a comfortable enough win for the seven-time defending champion, but he was made to look sluggish on occasions against an opponent he would normally be expected to dispatch in double-quick time.
“I think he (Fognini) is a fabulous player. He attacked very well, he is very quick and when he is aggressive it is very difficult to stop him,” Nadal said. “To win the first set was important. In the last two matches I lost the first set.”
Next up, on his 27th birthday tomorrow, will be Japan’s Kei Nishikori as the Spaniard continues his campaign to become the first man in tennis history to win the same Grand Slam title eight times.
Nishikori defeated Benoit Paire of France 6-3, 6-7 (3/7), 6-4, 6-1 to become the first Japanese man to reach the Last 16 at Roland Garros in 75 years.
Nadal went into his 56th career match at Roland Garros having lost the opening set of his first two ties, the first time that has happened to him in Paris, and he nearly got off to another shocker as Fognini, like Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan before him, went for broke.
Dropped service games by Nadal in the fifth and 11th games produced a tie-break that the defending champion led from the start to win 7/5.
Fognini again had Nadal struggling on serve at the start of the second set, winning over the centre-court crowd with his bold tactics and expressive nature.
But he failed to convert a couple of break points and, after the Italian dropped his serve and received treatment for a blister on his hand, Nadal started to race away with the match.
He pocketed the set 6-4 and when he broke at the start of the third set, the writing was on the wall for in increasingly distracted Fognini who fired his last bullets by clawing back three games to get to 5-4 before Nadal served out.