Rafael Nadal comes back from the brink to continue progress in Rome

Rafael Nadal saved two match points against Denis Shapovalov as he battled into the quarter-finals of the Italian Open.

The clay-court master has looked a little shaky on the red stuff so far despite winning a title in Barcelona and he was staring at his earliest loss in Rome for 13 years.

He trailed by a set and 3-0 and saved two match points at 5-6 in the deciding set before digging out a 3-6 6-4 7-6 (3) victory.

Nadal has won nine titles in Rome but he again struggled with his serve and made an unusual amount of unforced errors against an opponent who had shown little form on clay until this tournament.

The 34-year-old said: “It’s an important victory for me. To be able to win these kind 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. It has been a positive victory for me. I fought until the end a lot to be in the quarter-finals.”

Shapovalov began brilliantly, racing into a 4-0 lead and holding his nerve when Nadal, who was perhaps feeling the effects of quick turnaround following Wednesday evening’s battle with Jannik Sinner, began to find his range and fought back with a run of three games in a row.

Denis Shapovalov came agonisingly close to upsetting Rafael Nadal
Denis Shapovalov came agonisingly close to upsetting Rafael Nadal (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Shapovalov broke again to start the second set and had a point for 4-0 only for Nadal to dig in and hold and then break back with a brilliant game that was much more reminiscent of the player who has dominated this surface for a decade and a half.

It appeared the momentum had shifted decisively when Nadal clinched the second set but he was unable to take any of three break points at 5-5 in the decider and looked set to pay as the nerves took hold, only for Shapovalov to misfire on both his opportunities.

The 22-year-old Canadian was able to look at the positives, saying: “I have what it takes to beat these guys. It’s not a surprise to me. It’s just a tough loss.

“Of course, it’s not the first time Rafa’s done this. I’m not the first person to lose with match points. For sure he does well with the pressure in those moments.

Novak Djokovic hits a forehand during his victory over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina
Novak Djokovic hits a forehand during his victory over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

“Just something I have to take back and just make a couple of changes. But I’m definitely happy with where my game’s at, relatively speaking, against the greatest player on this surface.”

Novak Djokovic had no such worries against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, making short work of the Spaniard 6-2 6-1 as fans returned to the Foro Italico for the first time this year.

He will next face what should be a much tougher test against Monte-Carlo Masters champion Stefanos Tsitsipas, who defeated Italian number one Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (3) 6-2.

Giant American Reilly Opelka reached his second Masters quarter-final with a 7-6 (6) 6-4 victory over Aslan Karatsev while qualifier Federico Delbonis was a 7-6 (3) 6-1 winner over Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Alexander Zverev battled past former world number four Kei Nishikori 4-6 6-3 6-4 to set up a quarter-final date with Nadal.

Zverev had only lost five games against Nishikori in Madrid last week, but this time he needed to claw back from a break down in the decider to win in two hours and 53 minutes.

“I think my aggressive play fits better the altitude, it’s as simple as that,” Zverev said.

“It’s going to be a tough challenge (against Nadal), but I enjoy playing against the best players in the world. That’s what you’re here for. That’s what you play tennis for.”

Andrey Rublev overcame Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4 6-4, while Lorenzo Sonego beat Dominic Thiem 6-4 6-7 (5) 7-6 (5) in a marathon match lasting three hours and 24 minutes.