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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, May 17, 2019

Muscular marble statues adorning the Foro Italico represent the athletic ideal.

This clay-court campaign has been far from ideal for Rafael Nadal, but the reigning Rome champion showed muscle memory and an appetite for the fight powering into his 11th Rome semifinal.

Watch: Kyrgios' Rome Meltdown

In a clash of Spanish left-handers, a defiant Nadal denied saved eight of nine break points roaring through eight straight games in blitzing Fernando Verdasco, 6-4, 6-0, to reach his fifth straight semifinal. Nadal defeated Verdasco for the 17th time in 20 meetings.

It was Nadal's 427th career clay-court victory giving him sole possession of third place on the all-time list behind ATP leader Guillermo Vilas (679) and Manuel Orantes (538).

Continuing his quest for his first title of the season, raised his record to 23-5 and will face Stefanos Tsitsipas for a spot in Sunday’s final.

The eighth-seeded Greek took a walkover into his sixth semifinal of the season as scheduled quarterfinal opponent Roger Federer withdrew due to a right leg injury he sustained saving two match points to subdue Borna Coric, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7) yesterday.

The 20-year-old Tsitsipas surprised Nadal, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, in the Madrid semifinals last Saturday for his first win over the Spaniard in four meetings. Earlier this year, Nadal annihilated Tsitsipas, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0, in the Australian Open semifinals.

While Nadal is swamped in his longest drought to start a season since winning his first career title at Sopot in August 2004 when Hall of Famer Vilas pronounced him a future major champion, he is crafting Rome revival again.

Nadal has dished out three bagels in six sets during the last 24 hours after permitting just two games total rampaging past Jeremy Chardy and Nikoloz Basilashvili yesterday.

New dad Verdasco spent four hours and 54 minutes on court yesterday—most of any quarterfinalist and two hours, 45 minutes more than Nadal spent in his wins—and took the court today knowing he had to make something happen quickly or suffer the consequences.

Verdasco burst out of the blocks crunching his forehand with conviction—and blurring a forehand pass down the line to break in the opening game. Verdasco denied a pair of break points in the next game then nearly earned a second break but his forehand that crashed into the tape crawled back on his side as Nadal held for 1-2.

Outplayed for the first half hour, Nadal began driving the ball to Verdasco’s forehand to open up his weaker backhand wing. Catching up to a drop shot, Nadal forced his fellow lefty into an awkward reply breaking back for 3-all.

. Rallying from 15-30 down, Verdasco held to level after eight games then curled a creative short-angled forehand crosscourt for triple-break point in the ninth game.

As coach Francisco Roig and father Sebastian Nadal leaned forward in their court-side seat, the world No. 2 stung three straight serves, including singeing the center stripe to erase the second break point then whipping a wide serve to save the third break point. Nadal tamed the turbulence holding for 5-4.

Decision-making helped decide the opening set. Verdasco made the fatal mistake of approaching crosscourt to Nadal’s forehand and predictably got torched. Nadal blasted a return right back at the server earning double set point.

The second seed needed only one.

Confronting another deep return, Verdasco yanked a wild forehand wide as Nadal snatched the 62-minute opener.

A dazed and demoralized Verdasco watched as Nadal zapped a backhand bolt down the line scoring his third straight break for a commanding 4-0 second-set lead.

Nadal held at love for 5-0 charged through 12 of the final 14 points closing in one hour, 38 minutes.

In today's first quarterfinal, Diego Schwartzman rolled to a 5-0 lead en route to a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Kei Nishikori, to reach his first Masters semifinal.

Tennis Express

The sixth-seeded Nishikori surrendered serve five times, including double-faulting on match point, as the 26-year-old Schwartzman beat the former US Open finalist for the first time in four meetings.

Schwartzman will play either world No. 1 Novak Djokovic or good buddy and sometime practice partner Juan Martin del Potro for a spot in Sunday's final.


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