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Match of the Day: Rafa returns to familiar territory 

  • Gillian Tan

Australian Open 2009 champion Rafael Nadal’s hopes of clinching a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title remain alive, the Spaniard surging past Fabio Fognini 6-3 6-4 6-2 on Monday to book his 13th Australian Open quarterfinal, the 43rd time he’s advanced to the last eight in a major.

MORE: All the scores from Day 8 at AO 2021

“That’s a good number,” the 34-year-old said, smiling. “Happy to be in [the] quarterfinals again, it means a lot to me, it’s a positive start.”

The build-up

Nadal’s dominant 12-4 head-to-head advantage over Fognini – and 6-1 on hard courts – hasn’t translated at majors, with the duo tied at 1-1. 

“When he's playing well, he's one of the most dangerous opponents on tour without a doubt, no?” the Spaniard said of Fognini before the match, speaking from experience. 

The Italian and Roger Federer are the only two players who’ve recovered from a two-sets-to-love deficit to beat Nadal, Fognini eliminating the Spaniard in the third round of the 2015 US Open.

Fognini, who had surgery on both ankles last year, was in fine form in the lead-up to this clash and helped his nation advance to the ATP Cup final earlier this month. He was searching for a first-ever top-five win at a major, and victory would enable the right-hander to become the fourth Italian man to reach the final eight at the Australian Open, and the first since 1991.

A victory would also give Fognini bragging rights as one of the few active players to have defeated Nadal more than once at a Grand Slam.

Story of the match

In warm conditions, Nadal stormed to a fast start, breaking Fognini on his second attempt during the Italian’s opening service game. But down 1-3, the fit Italian strung together a series of winners and won a 22-shot rally on break point by steering a backhand down the line to earn the break back. 

As intensity rose on both sides of the net, a barrage of deep groundstrokes off Nadal’s racquet forced errors from his opponent to hand the Spaniard another break, which he consolidated for a 5-2 lead. Serving to stay in the match, Fognini saved three set points to squeeze out an 11-minute long eighth game but Nadal barely blinked as he held to love, closing out the set 6-3.

Both players exchanged trademark blistering forehand winners to start the second set, and the 33-year-old Fognini was able to save a break point under pressure. The Italian then seized the first break of the set but couldn’t maintain his 4-2 lead for long. Despite serving two aces on his way to saving four break points, Fognini conceded a fifth by overcooking a forehand return. Then, unlike his rival in the game before, Nadal dug his way out of a 0-40 hole and held for 4-4 thanks in part to a well-placed lob. 

In the next game, after punching an approach volley into the net, a frustrated Fognini was dealt a code violation for blasting a ball to the back row of an empty Rod Laver Arena en route to dropping his serve. Nadal, not needing to be asked twice, clinched the set with a massive 201km/h serve that his rival returned long.

With Nadal keen to avoid a recurrence of Fognini’s dramatic comeback at the 2015 US Open, the Spaniard’s relentless return game and spectacular court coverage allowed him to break for a 2-1 lead. From there, Nadal raced through the next three games before Fognini curbed the momentum to hold to love at 2-5. With his foot firmly on the pedal, Nadal blasted through an 86-second final game, fittingly sealing victory with his sixth ace.

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Nadal absorbed Fognini's best, then pushed for the finish line

“I was a little bit lucky,” Nadal said of his ability to navigate past Fognini when the Italian's level lifted during the second set. 

“Today has been very humid, the conditions are quicker during the day – I honestly like [it] a little bit more,” he said. “Normally I like the ball flying a little bit faster.”

Key stats

Nadal managed to win despite only landing only 42 per cent of first serves during the opening set, though this improved to 60 per cent by the conclusion of the match. Defensive from the baseline in crucial moments, the Majorcan saved four of six break points. He also found success at the net, winning 80 per cent of those points.

What this means for Fognini

The Italian, contesting his 50th major, said before the match that his post-injury comeback has already exceeded expectations. Currently ranked No. 17, he’ll stay in the hunt for his first major quarterfinal since Roland Garros 2011 as the season continues, no doubt eyeing a return to his career-best ranking of No. 9, which he held as recently as July 2019. 

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Fognini can take plenty of positives from his run in Melbourne

Particular focus may be on the clay-court swing, the surface on which the Italian has won eight of his nine career singles titles.

What’s next for Nadal?

The experienced Spaniard is now three victories away from becoming the first man in the Open Era to twice complete a career Grand Slam. In the quarterfinals, he’ll face Stefanos Tsitsipas, who received a free passage after opponent Matteo Berrettini withdrew from their Monday night fourth-round clash with an abdominal strain. 

Nadal holds a 6-1 head-to-head advantage over Tsitsipas, and will seek to avoid the outcome of his final eight appearance in 2020: a four-set upset by Dominic Thiem.

“Happy to be through today, [it has] been an important victory for my confidence. I am happy that the back is holding [up] better,” Nadal said, acknowledging injury concerns that he floated before the tournament. 

“Tomorrow [is] going to be an important day of practice again … let’s see if I am able to play a good match.”