Photo: Rafael Nadal
Spain’s Rafael Nadal nearly lost another set in the first week of this year’s French Open, but he managed to come through Saturday with a 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-4 victory over Fabio Fognini in third-round action.
Despite the straight-set win, the No. 3 seed struggled to impose his game on his Italian rival and failed to erase the doubts swirling around his game at the season’s second Grand Slam tournament.
Nadal came into the event after making a near-perfect return to tennis following a seven-month absence from the ATP Tour due to a knee injury and illness.
He leads the men’s circuit with six titles in 2013, five of them on clay, and has made the final of all eight tournaments he has played since starting his comeback in February.
But his game at the French Open - where has won a record seven titles - has been relatively pedestrian through three rounds, though he may have lacked freshness on Saturday because rain on Thursday meant he had to play his second- and third-round matches on consecutive days.
Fognini came out swinging for the lines early on, a risky yet effective strategy that earned him the chance to serve out the first set at 6-5.
He squandered that chance with unforced errors, however, and ended up losing the set in a close tiebreaker.
It was the first time this tournament that Nadal won the first set, after losing the opening set in his first-round win over Germany’s Daniel Brands and second-round victory over Slovakia’s Martin Klizan.
The second set against Fognini was also tightly contested, although Nadal managed to secure a service break in the fifth game and ride that advantage to a two-set lead.
The Italian then was bothered by blisters and lost his concentration and composure early the third set, and a late rally proved too little too late.
Nadal was full of compliments for his opponent after the match.
“Fognini is a fantastic player. He hits very big and he’s really fast. It’s tough to beat him. He’s getting better all the time,” the 11-time Grand Slam champion said.
Next up for the Spaniard in Monday’s fourth round will be Japan’s Kei Nishikori, who defeated France’s Benoit Paire 6-3, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 6-1 on Saturday to become the first player from his country to reach the French Open round of 16 since 1938.
In women’s third-round play on Saturday, Russia’s Maria Sharapova, the No. 2 seed, struggled in the second set but held on to defeat China’s Jie Zheng 6-1, 7-5, while third-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus rallied to top France’s Alize Cornet 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.