No. 30 Fabio Fognini scored his second straight win over Rafael Nadal on clay, beating the eight-time champion 6-4, 7-6 (6) in the third round of the Barcelona Open. Fognini also beat Nadal at the Rio Open in February and with Thursday's win, the Italian becomes just the second man behind Novak Djokovic to beat Nadal twice on clay in a single season. Not bad for a player who had never won a main draw match in five appearances at the Barcelona Open before this week.
Fognini kept the pressure on Nadal, who continued to struggle with his consistency off the ground, and hit 34 winners to 35 unforced errors, while Nadal hit 17 winners to 30 unforced errors. Nadal served at 70% and won just 58% of his first serve points while Fognini served at 54% and won 70% of his first serve points. The Italian hit bigger and with more consistent depth than Nadal, earning three break points in the first set to just one for Nadal. Fognini converted only one of the three, but it happened to also be set point with Nadal serving at 4-5 in the first set.
Nadal rebounded in the second set to break Fognini immediately in a lengthy six-deuce game that saw Nadal finally convert on his seventh break point of the game. But again, Nadal struggled on his serve and gave the break right back. In all, there were six breaks of serve in the second set, including in the tenth game when Nadal served for the set at 5-4. He quickly fell behind 0-40 and Fognini broke on his third break point of the game.
With the momentum behind Fognini, Nadal did well to battle and force a tiebreak, but the unforced errors—flying off his racket in the form of mishits and shanks—finally did him in. Fognini played a solid tiebreaker to earn a quick 6-3 lead, only to see Nadal save three straight match points. Fognini stayed calm. He earned one more match point with his serve and then finally converted when Nadal tried to go big on a forehand and sent it long.
"I played poorly, I didn't play like I should have," Nadal said in an interview after the match. "I didn't play aggressively, I missed more shots that I normally do. I didn't manage to keep the advantage I had. Having three breaks in the second set and end up at 5-5 is a disaster.
"This is a blow for me, but I accept the challenge and the negative day I had today. There is no other way forward other than to accept it or die."
For Nadal it's back to the practice courts as he races against the clock to get his game up to snuff for his title defense at the French Open, which is now four weeks away. Through two European clay tournaments so far, Nadal has yet to make a final, losing to Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo semifinals last week. At this point last year, Nadal found himself in the same place. He did not make the final in Monte Carlo or Barcelona, taking losses to David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, but went on to win the French Open. It's too early to panic but there is reason to be concerned about Nadal's game.
"My forehand didn't have enough power, enough speed, and I didn't have enough control," he said. "My forehand has been my biggest virtue. But today my forehand was vulgar, it wasn't a forehand worthy of my ranking and career. I need my forehand to push my opponents back."
Barring any wildcards into a small tournament next week, Nadal's next tournament is the Madrid Open, where he is the defending champion.
Fognini will play Pablo Andujar in the quarterfinals. Earlier in the day, top seed and defending champion Kei Nishikori eased into the quarterfinals with a win over Santiago Giraldo. He will play No. 7 seed Roberto Bautista Agut. No. 3 seed David Ferrer will play Philipp Kohlschreiber.
Check out this shot from Fognini during Thursday's match: