Rafael Nadal overcame a second-set blip to gain revenge of Fabio Fognini with a straight-sets victory to move into the semifinals of the Barcelona Open. Nadal had lost to Fognini both in the third round of the same tournament last year, as well as at the U.S. Open, but, continuing his current rich vein of form, proved too strong for the Italian on Thursday, winning 6-2 7-6(1) in an hour and 50 minutes.
It is now eight match wins on the bounce to start the European clay-court season for the world No. 5. And, at times, Fognini found out first hand that this is a very different Nadal from the one that struggled through 2015 and the early stages of this year. The switch appeared to have been flicked in Monte Carlo last week, when he landed his first Masters 1000 title in almost two years. And it remained firmly on during the early stages of Thursday’s quarterfinal.
Dictating from the baseline with the sort of depth on his ground strokes that has all-too-often been lacking over much of the past 18 months, Nadal broke in the very first game, before doing so again to go up 4-0.
Fognini had entered the Barcelona Open having played just one match since February and with only eight matches under his belt in the whole of 2016. His slow start, then, was perhaps far from surprising. The flamboyant world No. 31 did up his game and even got a break back. But the level of shot-making required to hurt Nadal was unsustainable, and while he was hitting more winners than the Spaniard, he was also firing significantly more unforced errors.
The intensity of Nadal’s strokes was too much. And after a stunning forehand down the line the top seed in Barcelona broke once more to grab the opening set.
Nadal will have needed no reminding that he had a two sets to love lead in the U.S. Open third round last year, before Fognini roared back to inflict a crushing loss on the 14-time Grand Slam champion. And it was that memory which perhaps exacerbated his frustration when, having again broken at the start of the second set, he immediately dropped his own serve to allow Fognini right back into it.
It proved a precursor of a surprise shift in momentum. Having missed the opportunity to slam the door on his opponent, Fognini, who also received treatment on his shoulder, bloomed in confidence. Now it was Nadal, reverting to the ineffective groundstrokes that have plagued him since 2014, who was on the back foot.
Fognini broke Nadal again and at 5-4 had a chance to serve to level the match. But faced with an unwanted extension of his court time, Nadal reignite. And, to the roars of the crowd, he broke back to draw level. From there, there was likely to be only one winner. And so it proved.
Although Fognini wowed in nervelessly saving three match points, Nadal sprinted through the tiebreak to seal victory. He will now face either German 10th seed Philipp Kohlschreiber or Russian world No.47 Andrey Kuznetsov in the semifinals on Saturday.