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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fabio Fognini

Fabio Fognini doubled Rafael Nadal in winners (34 to 17) in upsetting the eight-time Barcelona champion, 6-4, 7-6 (4), to reach the Barcelona quarterfinals.

Photo credit: Barcelona Open BancSabadell

Stepping inside the service line, Rafael Nadal angled a routine smash into the corner. Fabio Fognini answered with a remarkable leap of faith.

Racing to his right, Fognini was so far off the court he could have plucked a tulip from the flower pots ringing the front row and planted it in girlfriend Flavia Pennetta's hair.

Video: Nadal Defeats Almagro in Barcelona

Instead, a flying Fognini lashed a forehand winner down the line, breaking Nadal with brilliance when the second-seeded Spaniard served for the second set at 5-4.

That sequence summed up today's match. Nadal put himself in position to take charge — he earned 14 break points and served with a break lead three different times in the second set — but he couldn't put the animated Italian away.

Fognini produced moments of shot-making magic and exploited nervous lapses to make the eight-time Barcelona champion disappear, 6-4, 7-6 (6), in a two-hour thriller. It was Nadal's earliest exit in Barcelona since 2003.

It was Fognini's second straight clay-court victory over Nadal, following his 1-6, 6-2, 7-5 triumph capped with a dazzling match point in the Rio semifinals earlier this year. That victory snapped Nadal's 52-match winning streak in clay-court semifinals. Today, Fognini out-dueled Nadal on dirt.

"My play was awful and I didn't deserve to win," Nadal, who took the court with a 43-2 record in Barelona, told the media afterward. "Fognini played better than me and deserved to win. Until I resolve the ups and downs I have had too often this season I will continue to be vulnerable.

"I made more mistakes than normal and didn't manage to maintain the advantage that I had in certain moments. To have a break three times in the second set and end up a 5-5 is a disaster."

The Australian Open doubles champion is just the second man to beat the king of clay twice in the same season on dirt. Fognini joins Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, David Ferrer and Gaston Gaudio as only the fifth man to beat Nadal twice on clay. Fognini employed aggressive court positioning and ambitious shot-making at critical stages to take advantage of some passive play from the Spaniard.

It raises further questions about Nadal's uneven form and skittish temperament with Roland Garros looming less than a month away.

The fourth-ranked Nadal has openly discussed his ongoing battle with nerves that constricted his left arm in his Miami loss to Fernando Verdasco. Once the world's most convincing closer on clay, Nadal sometimes played tight and tentative tennis when he built second-set leads today.

You can understand why Fognini's ball-control skills can make even a nine-time Roland Garros champ a little jittery. Playing with sculptor's feel around net, using the drop shot shrewdly and often stepping inside the court to drive the ball down the line, Fognini hit 34 winners doubling Nadal's output, and won 13 of 16 trips to net.

Each man saved a break point in the sixth and seventh games. Fognini's ability to step into the court and rob reaction time from his opponent earned him a set point in the 10th game. Nadal won a 16-shot rally to save it when the Italian missed a forehand down the line.

Shrugging it off, Fognini came right back firing the same shot down the line for a second set point. Pushing Nadal back with a deep return, Fognini attacked behind his forehand and swatted a high forehand volley winner — his 16th of the set — to snatch the 50-minute opener. Despite the fact he served just 45 percent, Fognini won 11 of 18 second-serve points as Nadal's shallow returns often landed near the service line.

Nadal broke to open the second set but Fognini used an exquisite drop volley and deep drive to break back for 1-1. Nadal scored the third straight break and consolidated for 3-1. He couldn't make the break stand as the sometime volatile Italian, playing with calm and clarity, broke back for 4-4.

Racing forward to run down a drop shot in the ninth game, Nadal danced back on his toes and reached over his right shoulder flicking an astounding high backhand volley off with ease. He crunched a twisting forehand winner down the line, celebrating the break and 5-4 lead hurling an uppercut.

For the third time in the set, Nadal served up a break and for the third time he gagged. Spraying an inside-out forehand wide, Nadal fell into a triple break point hole. Then Fognini brought the magic with that running forehand winner to break back, bringing a smile to his girlfriend's face in the process.

The early stages of the tie break belonged to Fognini.

Controlling play with his forehand, Fognini raced out to a 4-1 lead then exploited successive nervous errors from his opponent to earn triple match point at 6-3. Digging in for a final stand, Nadal fought off all three match points, drilling an inside-out forehand winner with a forceful "Vamos!" and fierce uppercut to level at 6-6. Fognini responded sliding a serve winner wide for a fourth match point. When Nadal sailed an inside-out forehand, it was over.

"A week ago in Monte Carlo I had a lot of good moments. It was the best so far this year, but this is completely the opposite, it has been a very negative week," Nadal said in his post-match press conference. "I thought that I would be able to play more consistently, but it wasn't to be."

There wasn't any extended celebration from Fognini, who handled victory with the similar calm he displayed throughout the match. He played like a man who believed he could beat Nadal and was pleased, though unsurprised, when he did.

Fognini faces another Spaniard, Pablo Andujar, for a semifinal spot. Andujar was a 6-3, 6-4 winner over fifth seed Feliciano Lopez.

In a rematch of the 2014 final, defending champion Kei Nishikori crushed Santiago Giraldo, 6-2, 6-1. The top-seeded Nishikori will play Roberto Bautista Agut for a place in the final four. The seventh-seeded Bautista Agut was a 7-6 (5), 6-2 victor over 10th-seeded Pablo Cuevas.

No. 3 seed David Ferrer defeated Swedish wild card Elias Ymer, 6-3, 6-4, and will face Philipp Kohlschreiber next. The 12th-seeded German topped Benoit Paire, 6-4, 7-6 (6).     


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