Rafael Nadal into Barcelona semis after turning tables on Fabio Fognini

Rafael Nadal is through to the semi-finals at the Barcelona Open after beating Italy's Fabio Fognini

Just as in Monte-Carlo last week, there was a lot at stake for one particular Spaniard in Barcelona, Rafael Nadal.

In the first clay Masters of the year, against the picture-book backdrop of Monaco, the world No5 reclaimed a title that he had dominated for eight consecutive years until 2012, winning not just his first title since the summer of 2015 but his first Masters title in two years.

It took him to a record-equalling 28th Masters, a record ninth Monte-Carlo Masters, his 68th title and his 48th clay title—just one short of the Open clay record held by Guillermo Vilas. Perhaps more important than any of those numbers was the self-belief that oozed from the ‘king of clay’ after a period of seesawing fortunes and hot-and-cold confidence.

But it was not just in Monte-Carlo that he dominated after bursting onto the tennis scene like a whirling dervish as a teenager in 2005 to win 11 titles, including the Monte-Carlo and Rome Masters and the French Open. That year he also won the title closest to his home and closest to his heart, at the oldest tennis club in Spain, Barcelona, and went on to set records there too, with eight titles and now a remarkable 45-3 record at the prestigious Real Club de Tenis.

However this year, he was attempting to reach the semis for the first time in three years, having fallen to Nicolas Almagro in the quarters in 2014 and to Fabio Fognini in his second match last year.

And one of the reasons that today’s quarter-final was also important for Nadal was the opportunity it offered to regain the upper hand over the flamboyant shot-maker from Italy. Fognini scored no fewer than three wins over Nadal last year, adding a three-set victory in the Rio semis and a comeback from two sets down in the third round of the US Open to win in five. Nadal did score two wins of his own in 2015, but Fognini certainly had taken full advantage of the Spaniard’s wavering form.

There was every sign that Nadal would turn the tables this time around, though. Not only did he arrive with that burgeoning confidence, in perfect physical shape and with the Monte-Carlo title to his name, but he faced a man who was only recently back from injury. Since retiring with an abdominal strain in Rio, the Italian had slipped to No31 in the rankings after playing just one more match before Barcelona, and that a first-round loss in Monte-Carlo.

Fognini at the best of times is an unpredictable force who can unleash magical drop shots and flat forehand winners at will, or throw in wayward errors with equal panache. His lack of match-play soon displayed both extremes, but with Nadal playing his penetrating and ruthless baseline game, four winners to Nadal’s zero in the opening four games could not compensate for six errors to the Spaniard’s two.

Nadal was quickly up by two breaks, 4-0, though a poor fifth game handed one of the breaks back to Fognini. The top seed refocused quickly, held for 5-2 and broke at the third attempt for the 6-2 set, despite notching up just two winners in the 40 minutes.

It looked as though the match would run away from Fognini in the second set when he took some treatment on a tight right shoulder after an hour’s play, but he pulled back the opening break, then broke Nadal from 40-15 up and saved his own serve from 15-40 down with some dazzling first-strike plays—four in row—for a 4-2 lead.

He served for the match at 5-4, but Nadal pressed hard and got the error he sought on break point, 5-5. Still the Italian stayed in contention to pull back three match points with some outrageous winners, now a perfect drop shot, then two forehand winners, and a finally a second astonishing disguised drop winner. It took the set to a tie-break, but that served merely to delay the outcome.

Nadal, tuned in to the maximum concentration, drew error after error from Fognini and, apart from one moment of Italian magic, a drop-shot-lob combo, the Spaniard did not lose a point, and advanced to the semis, 7-6(1), in an hour and 50 minutes.

The contrast in their styles of play was written all over the final stats: For 11 winners from Nadal, there were 30 from Fognini, but for 16 Spanish errors, there were 37 by the Italian.

However order was once again restored in one of Nadal’s old haunts—for the moment. He next plays Philipp Kohlschreiber, but the big test is likely to await him in the final where he may face the man who has won this title for the last two years, the second seed Kei Nishikori.

The Japanese man beat Alexandr Dolgopolov, 7-5, 6-0, and next plays the in-form Benoit Paire, who came back from losing the first set against Malek Jaziri to win in three, 3-6, 7-5, 6-1. Paire has won his past two meetings against Nishikori, one a five-set victory in the 2015 US Open and the other a three setter in Tokyo, so this one should be very close.

Nadal and Nishikori have shared the honours in their last two meetings, both on hard courts, but in their last clay meeting, in the final of the Madrid Masters in 2014, Nishikori dominated the play until hit by a back injury that forced him to retire at 0-3 down in the third set.

For both men, then, a final face-off again on clay would be a timely gauge of their form on the red stuff before heading to Madrid next week.

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