(Photo credit: REUTERS/Max Rossi)
Rafael Nadal will look to continue his stellar clay court season against one of the few players with the confidence and the quality to beat him, Fabio Fognini. Despite a disappointing loss to Thiem in Madrid last week that cost him his #1 ranking, Nadal is still unquestionably a dominant force on the clay. But backed by his home fans, Fognini has looked dialled in so far this week, and when the Italian is focused he is a dangerous opponent indeed. Who will come out on top?
Nadal and Fognini have met 13 times so far in their careers. Nadal dominates the head-to-head, having claimed the win on ten of those occasions, but Fognini will not be without hope ahead of the match. It was Nadal who won their first four matches, including twice on clay in 2013 when he defeated Fognini 6-1 6-3 in Rome and then in Paris where he triumphed 7-6 6-4 6-4. But Fognini then scored back-to-back clay court wins in Rio and Barcelona in 2015.
Nadal had a measure of revenge later that year in the Hamburg final, winning 7-5 7-5. But Fognini then produced one of the best performances of his career to stun Nadal at the US Open that September. He became the first man ever to recover from a two-set deficit against Nadal, winning 3-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 6-4. Unfortunately for the Italian, he has lost their five meetings since that win, although he did manage to take a set off Nadal in Madrid last year.
Path to the quarterfinals
Nadal, as top seed in Rome, enjoyed a first round bye. That saw him begin his campaign in the round of 32 against Bosnia’s Damir Dzumhur. Perhaps smarting from the loss of his Madrid crown and the #1 ranking, Nadal delivered a ruthless performance to crush Dzumhur for the loss of just one game. He then avenged the defeat Denis Shapovalov inflicted last year in Montreal, defeating the teenaged Canadian 6-4 6-1, after overcoming some spirited early resistance.
The unseeded Fognini’s Italian Open got underway against former world #6 Gael Monfils. It has been a difficult clay court season for the Frenchman so far, and he proved no match for Fognini, who triumphed 6-3 6-1. He then stunned Madrid finalist Dominic Thiem, surviving a mid-match resurgence from the Austrian to advance a 6-4 1-6 6-3 winner. He then put in a professional performance to oust Germany’s Peter Gojowczyk 6-4 6-4 to reach the last eight in Rome for the first time.
How do they match up?
Nadal will, as ever, look to dominate this match from the baseline. His forehand, hit with heavy topspin, can be devastating, particularly on a clay court where it is wont to rear up particularly violently. But arguably the most crucial element of Nadal’s success is his defensive ability. The Spaniard is able to keep a rally alive even when under the most severe pressure, making winning just one point against him a herculean task at times.
But Fognini is a wily clay courter indeed. Though at times he can appear disinterested and he is hardly an elite competitor, when he is able to string it all together, there is little he can’t do on a clay court. It is a testament to his quality that he has wins over Nadal and Murray, as well as Kei Nishikori, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych when they were top ten players. He can do damage with both his forehand and backhand, and moves well exceptionally well, despite occasionally seeming rather flat-footed.
Nadal has already gone some way to showing that his loss to Thiem was a blip rather than a cause for serious concern. Neither Dzumhur nor Shapovalov were able to hold a candle to him, despite valiant efforts on both their parts. Fognini, with the backing of the Italian crowd, will likely provide more of a test for the world #2. But with Nadal in this kind of form, it is hard to envisage Fognini being able to go toe-to-toe with him and survive. Nadal in straight sets.