When it comes to long, grueling clay-court battles, nobody is better than Rafael Nadal.
Nearing his 35th birthday, the Spanish great showed he’s still got the stamina to withstand much younger challengers in a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3) comeback win over 22-year-old Denis Shapovalov on Thursday that secured him a spot in the Italian Open quarterfinals.
Nadal roared back from 3-0 down in the second set and then saved two match points on his serve at 6-5 in the third.
It seems — and it’s been this way since Nadal started dominating back in 2005 — that the Spaniard gets tougher and tougher to beat the longer matches wear on.
“That’s why he’s won so many matches on clay,” Shapovalov said. “It’s not the first time Rafa’s done this. I’m not the first person to lose with match points. He does well with the pressure in those moments.”
Nadal, who will be aiming for a record-extending 14th French Open title next month, was also pushed at times in a straight-set win over 19-year-old Jannik Sinner that ended late Wednesday.
Then there was his long three-set victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas — another 22-year-old — in the Barcelona Open final last month.
“To be able to win these kind of matches against young players give me confidence with my body," Nadal said.
Nadal struggled to hold serve at the start, while Shapovalov was blasting aces and winners with his one-handed backhand. Nadal dug in, though, and started to win the longer rallies.
Shapovalov missed a backhand to conclude a long rally on his first match point then shanked a forehand on his second. A costly double-fault handed Nadal a 3-1 lead in the tiebreaker and the Spaniard quickly closed it out after 3 hours, 27 minutes.
Nadal, a nine-time champion in Rome, will next face either Alexander Zverev, who won the Madrid Open on Sunday, or Kei Nishikori.
“I have to do things better for tomorrow,” AP quoted Nadal as saying.
Earlier, top-ranked Novak Djokovic seemed to enjoy every moment of his 6-2, 6-1 win over Spanish qualifier Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
Djokovic will next face Tsitsipas, who eliminated Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (3), 6-2 in a matchup of top-10 players.