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Nadal survives almighty scare in Rome

ESPN staff
May 16, 2013 « Live County Championship coverage | Chartbeat test »
Rafael Nadal conceded nine break points © Getty Images
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Reigning French Open champion Rafael Nadal nearly suffered a shock defeat little more than a week out from his defence of the Roland Garros crown, eventually coming from behind to beat Ernests Gulbis 1-6 7-5 6-4 in the third round of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.

Nadal, a six-time winner at the event, had displayed imperious form coming into the tournament, winning six titles already in 2013 following his return from a seven-month layoff due to a knee injury.

However, just when he had some of his top rivals - namely Andy Murray - claiming a half-fit version of the Spaniard would still win the French Open, Nadal was given a wake-up call by world No. 46 Gulbis. The Latvian qualifier almost bagelled his illustrious opponent in set one and stayed with him to 5-6 in the second, but Nadal dug as deep as he has all year to triumph.

Nadal had served warning of Gulbis' threat on Wednesday, saying: "Tomorrow I play against an opponent who is very dangerous. He's playing well and he's having a great season. He's an aggressive player, big serve, big shots from the baseline, and I have to be playing great if I want to have any chance."

It sounded like the modest musings of a man who always speaks well of his challengers, yet when Nadal stepped on court with Gulbis his words instantly came to fruition.

Despite getting over 80 per cent of his first serves into play during the first set, the former world No. 1 won only 10 of 23 points on serve. He was consistently on the back foot as Gulbis rattled towards break points, breaking twice in succession for a 5-0 lead.

Nadal managed to avoid the bagel when he got on the board for the first time at 5-1, but his opponent looked quicker and more powerful, showing exceptional court movement as he took on the role of aggressor to claim the opening set.

More trouble was to follow for Nadal who had to save two break points in the third game of the second stanza, switching the ball from side-to-side effectively to stay on terms. By contrast, Gulbis was defending his own delivery with ease, denying Nadal a single break chance in the opening 14 games.

When Nadal finally did threaten, the Latvian's nerve failed to hold steady, sending a relatively easy cross-court backhand wide of the far tramline as Nadal unleashed a huge roar to greet his first breakthrough. However, the problem was his own delivery remained endangered, and a lucky net cord saw Gulbis hit straight back for 4-5.

Back fought Nadal, who was now right in the contest, creating three set points at 0-40 only to see Gulbis defend for 5-5. Nobody fights better than the Spaniard though, and he eventually levelled at one set apiece when - in the 12th game of the set - Gulbis sent a forehand into the net.

As the players emerged for the third it was Nadal now dictating from the baseline as he opted to meet the ball earlier on the rise, and he looked to have sealed victory when he broke for a 4-2 lead. However, Gulbis retained belief and forced Nadal to sink a forehand into the net as he returned the match to serve at 4-3.

The pressure stayed on the Latvian though, who finally cracked when firing a forehand wide to give Nadal the match. Nadal will now face David Ferrer in the quarter-finals.

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