Rafael Nadal saw a 4-1 first set lead evaporate on Friday before regrouping to beat talented Italian Fabio Fognini, who was boosted by a capacity Court Centrale crowd at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.
The Spanish superstar denied Fognini his wish of an early first birthday present for his son, Federico (born 19 May 2017), in a 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 victory that keeps Nadal in pursuit of a return to No. 1 in the ATP Rankings.
Should Nadal bite into his eighth trophy at the Foro Italico in Rome, which would represent a record 33nd ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown, he would supplant Switzerland’s Roger Federer at the summit of men’s professional tennis on 21 May.
Nadal, the 2005-07, 2009-10, 2012-13 Rome champion, is now 54-6 at the historic clay-court tournament. Already with 11th titles at both the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters (d. Nishikori) and at the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell (d. Tsitsipas), the World No. 2 improves to a 21-2 match record in 2018 (17-1 on clay).
Nadal’s intensity was highlighted in netting the first break of the match, for a 3-1 lead. Fognini drew the Spaniard out wide for a backhand volley into an open court, but Nadal rushed back and hit a backhand winner. Fognini, fueled by his courtside compatriots, finally broke back at 2-4 on his fourth break point chance with a forehand return winner down the line. Having led 4-1, Nadal won 11 of a possible 41 points, as Fognini harnessed the momentum, moving terrifically around the court to clinch the 60-minute opener when Nadal struck a backhand long. For only the third time, in their 14th FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting, Fognini had won the first set (also 2013 China Open, 2015 Barcelona).
As Court Centrale got watered between sets, Nadal refocused and ran through the 33-minute second set courtesy of winning 16 of his 21 service points, in addition to service breaks in the second and sixth games. On set point, the 31-year-old his a slice serve out wide then struck a crosscourt backhand into space — one of six winners in a strong response.
Fognini’s challenge suffered a setback, when he dropped his second service game of the decider to love, striking a backhand long. Nadal’s groundstroke consistency and depth reaped a decisive second break of Fognini’s serve at 2-4 en route to completing victory in two hours and 15 minutes.
The 30-year-old Fognini was appearing in his first quarter-final in Rome, on his 11th appearance at his home tournament (10-11 record). In February, he lifted his sixth ATP World Tour title at the Brasil Open (d. Jarry) and has a 20-11 mark in 2018.