Rafael Nadal reached the quarterfinals of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia 2021 but it looked like the narrative would be very different when Denis Shapovalov found himself 6-3 3-0 up on a very windy afternoon in Rome. But the Spaniard is well known for being someone who simply does not give up and his fighting spirit brought him back countless times during the next two sets, including saving two set points before closing 3-6 6-4 7-6(3) in 3.30 hours.
“It is an important victory for me”, said ‘Rafa’ at the end of the match: “to be able to win matches like today, 3 hours 27, to be able to win these kind of matches against young players give me confidence with my body. It’s true that I have to do things better for tomorrow. Have been a positive victory for me. I fought until the end and a lot to be in quarterfinals”.
And he needed such confidence to turn things around because, not even the time to start the match and Shapovalov immediately was hitting winners left and right. Nadal was lethargic in the first games, but it was due to his own merits that the Canadian fled to a 4-0 lead. The reaction of the 9 times Rome champion was obviously about to come: the Spaniard stepped up and started feeling the ball more. By forcing the rallies to get longer and longer, Nadal put pressure on his young opponent and took one of the two breaks back.
Shapovalov, however, was not to get scared by the comeback of the Spaniard. On a crucial point at 4-3 30-30, the 22-year-old fired a stunning backhand winner down the line and built his confidence around it to attack Nadal while he served to stay in the set down 5-3. The world number 3 had two points to close the game, but a few unexpected errors creeped in, while Shapovalov put more and more pressure already from the return. ‘Rafa’ saved three set points, but on the fourth his backhand sunk into the net.
Cruising on top of the confidence taken from the first set win, Shapovalov went out full force in the second set and immediately took a break and a 3-0 lead. The Canadian had a chance to take a second break and go 4-0, just like in the first set, but this time, Nadal stepped up immediately and the change in the intensity found the Canadian unprepared. The Spaniard sturdily started dictating rally after rally and quickly turned the destiny of the set around, forcing the match to a nail-biting decider.
Just like in both sets, it was Shapovalov to get out from the blocks best and take the first break. But just like in the second set, Nadal raised the bar immediately and closed the gap. This time, however, the Canadian was not to get overwhelmed by his opponent’s reaction and a superb battle for each and every point enhanced. Under the setting sun, with long shadows playing with the contrast on court, the two went winner after winner to try and break each other’s defences.
Shapovalov gained confidence from saving a crucial break point in the seventh game and then three more in the 11th. Nadal, on the other hand, looked more comfortable behind his serve, only to struggle finding the first serve on 6-5. The 22-year-old found his way to a first match point, but his backhand down-the-line fared just long in the attempt of closing an extraordinary tough rally. He had a second chance, just later, but Nadal did not let him play it and a final tie-break was due.
Maybe with his head still at the missed chance, Shapovalov dropped his concentration a little and it was enough for Nadal to dominate the deciding tiebreak. After 3 hours and 27 minutes, Nadal survived the biggest scare of his tournament so far to reach the quarterfinals.