It seems strange that Rafael Nadal’s dominance of clay in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Paris was not so evident in Rome, where he has only seven titles and last appeared in the semi-finals four years ago.Still, he will hardly complain – and, indeed, he will be mightily happy if he wins on Sunday as it will haul him back to No 1 in the world over the absent Roger Federer.
The man he defeated 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 on Friday to reach the semi‑finals, Fabio Fognini, will afford the Spaniard little sympathy if he falls short. This was Fognini’s first quarter-final at his home tournament at the 13th attempt and he must have thought he could go further, or even all the way, when he came from 1-4 down in the first set to send Roman tennis fans into a frenzy on a perfect summer’s day.
Last year Fognini defeated Andy Murray before the eventual champion, Alexander Zverev, put him out in the third round. But, at 30 and happily married to the retired 2015 US Open champion, Flavia Pennetta, he seems to have drained his game of the maddening inconsistencies that did for him so often in the past. Here it was Nadal’s forehand and a failing knee that stopped his bid.
At 15-30 and 4-4 Nadal went behind for the first time after 53 minutes. Fognini, who had already sprayed a dozen unforced errors around the Campo Centrale, was energised. He needed to hold serve to take only his 11th set off Nadal in 13 matches – and he did it right on the hour with a rasping forehand.
The only man in tennis who puts his towel between his teeth had the bit there now but he knew retaliation would be swift. Nadal, roused from his slumber, opened up another 4-1 lead and this time levelled at a set apiece.
Shaken by the counter-attack Fognini resisted as best he could. This was an adagio, slow and drawn out, rather than the crescendo that Kyle Edmund had referred to the previous evening, describing that urge to finish a match in a rush. Fognini, limping, shoved a weary backhand wide and it was over after two and a quarter hours.
“I made a couple of mistakes in the first set,” Nadal said. “I should not lose two serves in a row, but he was taking the ball earlier than me and was able to control points from the baseline. Then I played a little more aggressive on my forehand.”
It was the first time since Nadal returned to the Tour from injury that he had come from a set down to win. That pleased him immensely. “I had five months without completing a tournament. Since Shanghai until Monte Carlo I didn’t complete not one event. So, the comeback has been great, no?”
Yes, it has: it took Dominic Thiem on an inspired day in Madrid last week to snap his run of 50 sets on clay. He looks in the mood to resume his sequence.
Following them on to the tournament’s cavernous showcourt on Friday Maria Sharapova found Jo Konta’s conqueror, Jelena Ostapenko, a mirror image of bloodymindedness, the Latvian grinding her down to take the first set at the fifth attempt. Three hours and 10 minutes later it was the Russian who was smiling.
She is through to the semi‑finals on the back of a fighting 6-7 (6), 6-4, 7-5 win that was engrossing, brutal and riddled with mistakes on both sides of the net: 21 double faults and 110 unforced errors.
Ostapenko, behind in the serving cycle, needed to hold to stay on course for a two-set win, but the Russian was equally determined. Sharapova was as emotionless as ever when a double-fault – Ostapenko’s 10th – handed her set point. She cashed in with a cracking two-fister at a sufficiently acute angle, and they went to a third after more than two hours of attrition.
There was not a lot of it that was pretty but it was don’t-look-away tennis. Hitting like prizefighters, they stayed close, in method and score, until Ostapenko, wincing with a foot injury, found herself a service game from defeat – and held to love. Still grimacing, she broke for 4-5.
Serving to extend the agony, she was ecstatic when Sharapova butchered her first match point, relieved when she netted the second. It looked like the match that would never end but it was ultimately put to bed, under lengthening shadows, when Sharapova drove a backhand down the line.