RIO DE JANIERO -- No. 27 Fabio Fognini earned his first win in five tries over top-seeded Rafael Nadal, beating the defending champion 1-6, 6-2, 7-5 in the Rio Open semifinals. Fognini will face No. 9 David Ferrer in his first ATP final since April of last year. It also snaps his 0-23 streak against top-five seeds. Nadal will fall to No. 4 in the ATP rankings on Monday behind Andy Murray.
"With Rafa it's always difficult. He was No. 1 in the world and he's No. 3 now. I played my game. In the second, I played really well," Fognini said. "I tried to be more positive on court and when I had the shots to attack him. I think that was one of the keys of the match."
Nadal and Fognini came into the match with little recovery time, with Fognini battling for more than three hours to beat Federico Delbonis on Friday night in a match that ended just shy of 1:00 a.m. BST Saturday morning. Nadal had it tougher, needing three sets to beat Pablo Cuevas in a match that finished at 3:18 a.m. Despite the earlier finish, it was Fognini who came out flat in Saturday's semifinal. Nadal raced to a 5-0 lead before Fognini won his first game, and the Spaniard sealed the first set in 35 minutes.
Fognini finally awoke in the second set. Though it appeared he was wasting his energy picking fights with chair umpire Carlos Bernardes, the repeated jawing increased his intensity. He quickly became the aggressor and kept Nadal pinned behind the baseline and on the run. While Fognini found his game, Nadal suddenly lost his, struggling with his rhythm off the ground and lighting up the stat-sheet with surprising errors. Fognini took the second set easily to force a third and continued to pressure Nadal off the ground with his unrelenting defense. The two exchanged holds through the final set until the ultimate game.
Serving to force a decisive tiebreaker, Nadal fell behind love-30 but was able to climb back into the game with two big forehand winners. Fognini then was able to secure three match points, converting the final one in spectacular fashion. With the ball hitting the netcord and falling short, Fognini sprinted forward and hit an incredible pick-up for a winner:
Fognini finished with 32 winners to 27 unforced errors, while Nadal hit 18 winners and 26 unforced errors. The Spaniard also hit six double-faults.
Nadal chalked up the precipitous dip in form after the first set to fitness. He began noticeably cramping in the third set and doubled-over in pain while trying to serve out the final game.
"I got tired too early today," Nadal said. "But that's part of the way I have to pass [through] again after awhile outside of the competition. Always these kinds of things can happen."
Despite the loss, Nadal sees progress. "I feel my tennis is closer than a month ago to the level that I want to arrive again," Nadal said. "For the moment I am playing better again, but it's true it remains a little bit of [inconsistency] on different things. I have to be happy with how I played that first set." Nadal will continue on to the Argentina Open in Buenos, Aires next week.
The Rio Open was Nadal's third tournament back since a wrist injury and appendicitis interrupted and prematurely ended his 2014 season. It was also his first since losing to Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January. The loss was just the 25th loss of his career on clay and snapped his 52-match win streak for clay semifinals.
Said Nadal: "I think I didn't have a negative week. It's true I would love to play that final here. That would give me a lot of confidence back, but I have to wait a little bit more. So I'm going to continue that way playing a little bit better every week and let's try next week in Buenos Aires."