Madrid Masters: ‘Attitude and will to win’ help Rafael Nadal battle past Fognini flair
Rafael Nadal is through to the last 16 of the Madrid Masters after beating Fabio Fognini in three sets
The wave of Spaniards that filled 11 of the 56 places in the men’s draw at the Mutua Madrid Open this week had, bit by bit, been whittled down by the second round.
A variety of former and current top-20 players were sent packing, the likes of Fernando Verdasco, Pablo Carreno Busta and Roberto Bautista Agut all lost, but in the bottom half of the draw, there remained a swathe of familiar Spanish faces.
Feliciano Lopez, age 35 and playing here for the 16th consecutive year, made a convincing start with a victory over Ernesto Escobedo in straight sets in just 74 minutes. Now he had battled past the indefatigable Gilles Simon in three sets for the chance to play Novak Djokovic—who was pushed all the way by another over-30 Spaniard, Nicolas Almagro.
The former world No3 David Ferrer also came through a tough three-set opener in his 15th year at the Madrid tournament. He then got a walk-over to the third round after Jo-Wilfried Tsonga withdrew injured, so would have to try and score his 700th career win against Kei Nishikori. Should he get it, he had a place in the quarter-finals, and a showdown with either Lopez or Djokovic—as long as the Achilles injury that blighted his spring was well and truly healed.
Then, of course, there was the most renowned Spaniard of them all, a former No1 with 14 Majors, 29 Masters, and Olympic gold to his name. He also boasted three Madrid titles from six finals since this tournament had moved to clay in 2009.
He took on Italian Fabio Fognini, currently ranked 29 but a former No13, and a man who won three of his five matches against Nadal in 2015, two on clay. However, Nadal had won their last three matches, and was in blistering form this year: Not just his 10th Monte-Carlo Masters title and 10th Barcelona title, but the finals of the Australian Open, Miami Masters and Acapulco—more match-wins than anyone else this year at 29.
Nadal did, of course, have the weight of the crowd behind him too, and it would prove to be valuable in a gripping, see-sawing contest determined as much by the unpredictability of Fognini as the consistency of Nadal on his beloved clay.
The Italian fired extraordinary winners but also shocking errors at various stages through the match, but in the third game it was the former, and he worked two break points in a 10-minute game, finally breaking the Spaniard. The Italian threw in a drop-shot-lob winner, and held for 3-1, and very nearly broke again in the fifth game. Three times he worked break points via four deuces with his own brand of creative, attacking tennis, but this time Nadal resisted.
Then came the first reversal for the Italian: a couple of poor errors, and Nadal broke back. The swings continued, and Fognini blistered to another break, 5-3, and brought up break point for the set, too. Now, Nadal’s ever improving serve came to his rescue, he held, and with an hour on the clock, broke to level, 5-5, helped not a little by a shocker of a backhand from Fognini, but still Nadal struggled to contain the aggressive flair of his opponent. Fognini had three break chances, only to fluff two returns, and Nadal edged to 6-5.
Fognini only just managed to take it to a tie-break, where he again took the early lead, but from 3-3, Nadal reeled off four points for the set, 7-6(3): It had taken an hour and 21 minutes.
In the second set, Fognini again streaked to a lead, 4-1, but Nadal was making uncharacteristic errors, and also failed to take advantage of two break-back chances. Fognini held onto his advantage this time, levelling the match 6-3.
Come the third set, Nadal regained his focus: the strut was back, and he jumped on a weak service game by Fognini in the sixth game. But then it was his turn to give up his lead, first a forehand wide, then another long, and Fognini had the break back.
But even now, the Italian would lose concentration. He saved a first match point with a stunning cross-court backhand pass but double faulted, and hit one last ball long to hand Nadal a desperately hard-earned win, 6-4, after almost three hours.
That takes Nadal’s wins for the season to 30, but this was not the vintage Spaniard. It is a rare day when he makes 37 errors in three-set match, but then perhaps he had good cause. He arrived in Madrid with an inner-ear infection that he admitted, as recently as Monday, was giving him considerable pain.
He said afterwards: “It’s true I’ve been through some difficult days with the issue of my ear, which cost me a little bit of general stability. I feel a little bit strange. But it’s something that is getting better day after day.”
And he was not happy with his inconsistent performance.
“Well, I think that even though I played really badly, my attitude has been very positive. My attitude and the will to win today’s match was there. My level of tennis was not so high today, but I managed to make it through the first round. It was uncomfortable.
“During the year, there are always ups and downs. There are matches that you play well, matches that you play bad. The matches you don’t play very well, you manage to make it through, they are very important. They give you a lot of confidence.
“I hope that tomorrow I will be playing better and I will be able to make it through. These kind of matches, they give you a lot of confidence. Mentally they make you stronger. I think that this is very important. That’s what really good players do.”
He will certainly need to play better against his next opponent, No16 seed Nick Kyrgios, who has advanced without dropping a set. He is riding a fine wave, having twice beaten Novak Djokovic and coming within points of denying Roger Federer in the semis of Miami, where he finally lost the third of three tiebreaks. He also produced fine performances in beating both John Isner and Sam Querrey in the Davis Cup quarter-final.
Most notably, perhaps, Kyrgios beat Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014 as a teenager, though Nadal won their only other match, on Rome’s clay last year—though it took three sets and two and three-quarter hours.
The winner will go on to meet either David Goffin or Milos Raonic, who has played only five tournaments this year, and conceded walk-overs in two of them as he contended with leg injury.