Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal has had to work hard thus far in Rome. Reuters

For two players who have battled for tennis’ biggest titles and were for so long part of the sport’s famed “big four,” it is certainly curious that when Rafael Nadal meets Andy Murray in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open it will be the first time they have faced off in more than two-and-a-half years. It’s a fact which makes Friday’s showdown, just over a week before the French Open, all the more intriguing.

Both players have plenty of need for a good showing this week ahead of the year’s second Grand Slam. Nadal has long been the King of Clay, winning a preposterous eight French Open titles in his nine visits to Roland Garros. Yet his impregnability has slipped thus far this clay-court season. At his first two tournaments, Monte Carlo and Barcelona, both of which he has won more than any other man in history, the Spaniard exited at the quarterfinals. While he got back on track with by claiming the title at the Madrid Masters, he looked on the way to losing the final to Kei Nishikori before the rising Japanese star suffered an injury and eventually had to withdraw.

In Rome this week, Nadal has had to survive in three sets against Gilles Simon and Mikhail Youzhny in his previous two rounds. After those tough examinations, Nadal will get another challenge of his credentials against a man he once faced on an almost weekly basis.

“I played with passion and motivation even if the feeling was not perfect," Nadal said of his 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-1 win over Youzhny, according to the ATP Tour website. “That’s always very good news, because when you have a lot of opportunities during the match, you keep fighting, trying to find solutions. That always means that you really want to win."

“It’s a positive match to play because you play against one of the best player of the world after two tough days,” he added of his match with Murray. "I don’t know how he has changed his play. I know he has a complete game but I have to focus on myself.”

For Murray, clay has never been his most successful surface, and it would be a surprise were his fortunes to greatly improve this season. Following a back injury late last year, the 27-year-old has still to return to the form that saw him achieve his dream of winning Wimbledon. The loss of Ivan Lendl as coach and the delay in appointing a replacement has also been an impairment. In his only previous foray onto clay this year -- outside of the Davis Cup -- Murray was defeated in the last 16 by Colombian Santiago Giraldo in straight sets at the Madrid Masters.

But Murray has progressed relatively impressively to the last eight in Rome, marking his birthday on Thursday by beating Austrian Jurgen Melzer in straight sets. And he is looking forward to more practice on clay, as well as testing himself against the best in the business.

"There are still some things I would like to do better. It is still a surface that takes me some time to get used to,” he said, according to the BBC.

“It's not a bad thing for me to play Nadal because I haven't played him for a long time. With the French Open and Wimbledon coming I would be quite interested to play him to see how his game changed and all the things I can do to make it difficult for him.”

When and where to watch: The quarterfinal of the Italian Open between Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray is scheduled to get underway not before 3 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Tennis Channel, with a live stream available on ESPN3.