Defending champion Rafael Nadal kicked off his title defense at the 2014 Italian Open on Wednesday with a dramatic three-set win over world No. 30 Gilles Simon.
ESPN Tennis shared the 7-6(1), 6-7(4), 6-2 scoreline:
Nadal gets the win 7-6(1), 6-7(4), 6-2 over Simon. He is thru to the 3rd round in Rome to face Youzhny. #ESPNTennis— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) May 14, 2014
The inspiring effort, which improves Nadal to 6-1 all time against the Frenchman, propels the seven-time Rome Masters champion into Thursday's round of 16.
Despite having suffered some head-scratching losses on clay this season, Nadal admitted on Tuesday that his triumph in Madrid last week was pivotal for his chances moving forward, per ATPWorldTour.com:
"I think in Madrid I played better than I had the two previous weeks," he said. "It's true that wasn't the case in the final, but the quarter-finals (against Tomas Berdych) and semi-finals (against Roberto Bautista Agut) were two good matches against two good, in-form players. It was good for my confidence."
Nadal would require every bit of that belief on Wednesday.
|1st Serve %||Break Points||Winners||Unforced Errors|
|(1) R. Nadal||79||6/13||32||30|
Both Nadal and Simon came out firing in the first set as each held serve through the first four games. However, Nadal would begin to separate himself midway through the opening set after breaking the Frenchman.
While Simon's aggressive game plan was successful early, Nadal found a way to maintain the upper hand, as tennis enthusiast Matt Zemek noted:
Simon with 10 winners to 3 for Nadal. Scoreboard: 4-3, Nadal. Champions have a way about them, do they not?— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) May 14, 2014
But despite having two chances to serve out the opening set, Nadal was unable to close out Simon in comfortable fashion, suffering his first break in the 10th game, per The Times' tennis correspondent Neil Harman:
Simon, with some exceptional tennis from the back of the court, gives as good as he gets against Nadal and breaks for 5-5.— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) May 14, 2014
Rafa would break right back with a brilliant curving shot, per TennisTV on Twitter:
Video: Nadal's banana-style forehand to break Simon! http://t.co/jkaMHoWrTx— TennisTV (@TennisTV) May 14, 2014
The theme continued as Simon would break Nadal in the very next game to force a tiebreak. But the Spaniard was clearly determined to finish the job in the extra session, winning the final six points of the tiebreak to snare the first set, 7-6(1).
Although Nadal only recorded nine winners in the first set compared to 20 for Simon, his unforced error count was impressive, committing just nine to Simon's 17.
The momentum gained from the first-set tiebreak carried over into the second set as Nadal earned a quick break to take a commanding 3-0 lead. But just when it seemed like Nadal was poised to run away with the match, Simon battled back and took advantage of a sloppy Nadal service game to get back on level terms at 3-3.
Rafa responded by winning the all-important seventh game and then reeling off five straight points two games later to seize a 5-4 advantage in the frame.
As he did all match, Simon came roaring back to force another tiebreak. This time, the Frenchman was up to the task, putting Nadal under pressure from the start en route to a 7-4 win in the extra session, per Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline on Twitter:
Gilles Simon is playing with full belief. Takes the tiebreak to force a third set vs. Nadal in Rome. Absolutely cracking the ball.— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) May 14, 2014
The wild swings in momentum continued in the final set as Nadal saw Simon erase a 2-0 deficit to level the set at two games apiece.
The New York Times' Ben Rothenberg noted Simon's rarely-before-seen approach:
Gilles Simon playing prodigious power tennis, locked at 2-2 in the third vs Nadal. Wish he showed this form more often--it's pretty special.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 14, 2014
Nadal restored order moments later after breaking Simon for the fifth time in the match and then consolidating with a service hold in the very next game.
That's when the wheels began to fall off for the Frenchman, who committed a costly double fault in his next service game, opening the door for Nadal to take a double-break advantage. Up 5-2 and in position to serve out the match, Nadal was animated, pumping his fist and shouting words of encouragement to himself.
After nearly three-and-a-half hours, the "King of Clay" closed out the match, avoiding what would have been a monumental upset.
Following's Wednesday's resilient effort, Nadal will have just a few hours to gear up for 14th-seeded Mikhail Youzhny on Thursday. Nadal is 10-4 against the Russian veteran all time and is 3-0 against him on clay. Nadal steamrolled in their only two previous meetings at the Rome Masters, dropping a combined six games over four sets.
And after surviving a scare in the second round, Nadal will be a heavy favorite to extend his four-match winning streak against Youzhny and advance to Friday's quarterfinals.
What's more, with fourth-seeded Roger Federer bowing out on Wednesday, the draw has opened up for the defending champion, who was already going to be favored to reach Sunday's final for the sixth straight year.
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