World No. 1 Rafael Nadal endured some nervous moments in his third-round match against No. 14-seeded Mikhail Youzhny Thursday at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, but Rafa ultimately survived 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-1 in a three-set thriller.
Not only does the hard-fought victory place Nadal in the Rome Masters quarterfinals, but it also sets up a clash with Andy Murray for the first time since 2011, according to Christopher Clarey of The New York Times:
Strange but true: Nadal & Murray have not played a match since 2011. The great underdeveloped rivalry in men's #tennis— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) May 15, 2014
Nadal entered Rome with a great deal of momentum on his side as he broke a short streak of clay-court futility by winning the Madrid Open. Rafa had to work extremely hard in order to reach his third-round encounter with Youzhny, however.
The spectacular Spaniard was pushed to a decisive third set by Gilles Simon in the second round, but he was able to come through. According to ATPWorldTour.com, Nadal was actually glad to be tested:
The conditions were difficult, it was very cold and the ball didn't bounce a lot. It was a tough moment in the second set, but this was the first match on clay where I had to suffer, mentally and physically. I was not playing bad and I am happy to have dealt with that kind of anxiety. I look forward to playing the third set because these are the matches that give me more satisfaction, the ones that test you very deeply. I did it and I am very happy.
Playing such a tightly contested match could have potentially damaged Nadal's chances of performing well against Youzhny, but it appeared to help his preparation as he outlasted yet another opponent in a long, arduous encounter.
Nadal and Youzhny seemed evenly matched early on as they traded holds back and forth on three occasions. As has been the case throughout the Rome Masters thus far, windy conditions wreaked havoc on the competitors.
Rafa continued to handle it well, though, which prompted Carole Bouchard of L'Equipe to call him one of the best wind players in tennis:
Nadal and Murray are def the best ones when playing in the wind comes. "Hello, haven't u noticed u're playing in a tornado ? Yes, so what ?"— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) May 15, 2014
Youzhny was clearly starting to fight the conditions a bit prior to his third hold as he had to stave off a number of break chances from Nadal, per Tennis TV:
Youzhny saves four break points to hold for 3-2 first set in swirling winds. Good, varied tennis from the Russian. http://t.co/SyGMzo0RdQ— TennisTV (@TennisTV) May 15, 2014
After Nadal made it 3-3 on serve, he was finally able to take advantage of Youzhny's struggles with the first break of the match. Rafa then held to make it 5-3 and seemed well on his way to winning the first set in fairly routine fashion.
Youzhny was able to come through with a hold, though, and he followed that up with a break of Nadal. Youzhny then held once again to pull within one game of stealing the set, according to ESPN Tennis:
Nadal is well known as a slow player who has cost himself points on several occasions in the past for taking too long between serves. Rafa was certainly pushing the envelope in that regard Thursday, but he was able to avoid penalty, as Stephanie Myles of Yahoo! Sports shares:
Nadal took 32 seconds before 15-40, 28 seconds before 30-40. Chair umpire is gutless.— Stephanie Myles (@OpenCourt) May 15, 2014
Although Youzhny deserves credit for pushing Nadal to the limit, Rafa beat himself when serving for the set as a pair of double faults gave Youzhny the game.
Nadal was able to bounce back with the set on the line, however, as he held serve and forced a tiebreak.
Youzhny jumped all over Nadal early in the tiebreak to the tune of a 3-0 lead, but Rafa answered as he so often does to make it 3-3. Many competitors would have folded at that point, but Youzhny dug deep and reestablished his advantage.
The Russian underdog pushed the lead to 6-3, and while Nadal was able to secure one more point in the tiebreak, Youzhny closed the set out in surprising fashion, as noted by Sky Sports:
It was a major accomplishment to take the first set from Youzhny's perspective since Nadal has traditionally dominated him, per ESPN's Chris Fowler:
About 6 years since Youzhny had won a set vs Nadal. Until just now. Rafa again very tight. 2 doubles serving for set, no depth on shots— Chris Fowler (@cbfowler) May 15, 2014
As seen in this graphic courtesy of Tennis TV, Youzhny had his greatest success in the first set when he was able to keep the rallies short:
That trend continued early in the second set with Nadal trying to reverse his fortune. Youzhny used the momentum gained from the first-set triumph to immediately put Nadal in dire straits with a break of serve:
Youzhny a set up and a break up! 2-1 in the 2nd. The world no. 1 is in trouble! Can Rafa recover? #TennisOnSky— Sky Sports Tennis (@SkySportsTennis) May 15, 2014
Youzhny then held to truly put the pressure on Nadal. Rafa came through with a much-needed hold of his own and then broke back to put things back on level terms in the second set. Rafa started to show some emotion after the break and seemed determined to get back in the match, according to Neil Harman of The Times:
I think that Mr Nadal wants this one very badly.— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) May 15, 2014
The writing seemed to be on the wall in terms of a Nadal comeback in the second set as he held and then broke Youzhny once again as part of a four-game run:
4 games in a row for Nadal in the 2nd set against Youzhny to take a 4-2 lead. Do you foresee a comeback for the top seed? #ESPNTennis— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) May 15, 2014
Nadal very nearly cracked on serve as Youzhny had a couple opportunities to break him, but Rafa staved off the break points and held at 5-2. Nadal then closed out Youzhny with yet another break to force a decisive third set:
Youzhny needed to find a way to halt his downward spiral, but things somehow managed to snowball even more. Rafa held serve to start the third set, broke Youzhny without much resistance and then held once again to take a quick 3-0 lead.
It felt as though Youzhny needed a hold or else the match would be over for all intents and purposes. Youzhny once again succumbed to Nadal to go down 4-0 as Rafa incredibly won his 10th game in a row, highlighted by Tennis Panorama:
10 straight games for Nadal.. up 67 62 40— Tennis Panorama News (@TennisNewsTPN) May 15, 2014
Nadal held again to make it 5-0, and he went for the final-set whitewash. Youzhny was able to salvage a game on serve, but he simply delayed the inevitable as Rafa put him away with a 6-1 thrashing in the third frame.
The potential concern regarding Nadal's form on clay is understandable. He has been so dominant on the red stuff over the course of his career that eyebrows are raised when players pose stiff challenges and win sets.
Nadal lost in the quarterfinals at the Monte-Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open respectively, but he turned the tide back in his favor by winning the Madrid Open. That hasn't exactly led to dominance, though, with Nadal having to gut out a pair of three-set wins in Rome thus far.
How will Rafael Nadal fare in the Rome Masters?
Things won't get any easier in the quarters as Nadal will have to take on Murray, who is under-seeded due to the fact that he has missed several tournaments this year with injuries.
Although Murray has never beaten Nadal in four tries on clay, he does have five wins in 18 matches against the Spanish superstar over the course of his career, according to ATPWorldTour.com.
That isn't a great winning percentage by any means, but it proves that Murray does have the tools to get the job done.
Nadal is somewhat vulnerable, but his game is so much better tailored to clay that it is difficult to see Murray defeating him.
A win over a top player like Murray would likely do wonders for Nadal's confidence and it could very well propel him to his second straight title on clay.
As ordinary as Nadal has looked at times recently, a pair of titles leading up to the start of the French Open on May 25 would cement him as the heavy favorite. It can't be easy for Rafa to constantly live up to massive expectations at Roland Garros, but he always manages to do so.
Even though his win over Youzhny on Thursday wasn't necessarily convincing, it was a nice test for him and it should set him up for success in both Rome and Paris.
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