Rafael Nadal returns a shot to Denis Shapovalov (unseen) during their Italian Open match in Rome on Thursday. Reuters
Top seeds Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal reached the quarter-finals of the Italian Open in contrasting styles on Thursday as spectators returned to the stands for the first time in Italy.
Nadal and Djokovic have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them, playing each other in the final five times.
World number one Djokovic needed just 70 minutes to sweep past Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-2, 6-1.
But nine-time champion Nadal had to save two match points against Canada’s Denis Shapovalov in a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7/3) battle over nearly 3hr 30min.
Nadal will next play Germany’s Alexander Zverev, who defeated Japan’s Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, for a place in the semi-finals.
Nadal lost to Zverev, 24, in the Madrid Masters quarter-finals last week.
Defending champion Djokovic, a five-time Rome winner, next plays Monte Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas in a rematch of last year’s French Open semi-final which the Serbian won.
Fifth seed Tsitsipas ended the run of home hope Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (7/3), 6-2 in one hour and 36 minutes.
‘Establish control’: After losing his opening service game, Djokovic powered back with five breaks of serve, outclassing his rival, despite a late fightback, to seal the win on his sixth match point.
Spaniard Nadal will be making his 16th last-eight appearance in Rome. It will also be his 97th ATP Masters 1000 quarter-final.
Nadal trailed by 0-4 in the opening set, and 0-3 in the second.
Shapovalov also broke for 3-1 in the third set but Nadal broke back immediately and held on despite two match points against him in the 12th game to force a tie-break.
Nadal’s experience in the high-pressure moments paid off against the 22-year-old who had beaten him in their first meeting in Montreal in 2017.
For Shapovalov it was a “tough loss” with only “one or two points” the difference in the clash of left-handers.
American Reilly Opelka advanced to his second Masters 1000 quarter-final with a 7-6 (8/6), 6-4 victory against in-form Russian Aslan Karatsev.
The 23-year-old hit 18 aces and saved two set points at 4/6 in the first-set tie-break to set up a meeting with Argentina’s Federico Delbonis in the last eight.
Meanwhile, fans were happy to return after more than a year without live sport.
“After all this time it’s good to be able to watch live sport,” said Alessandro Cimini, one of the first to arrive at the Foro Italico with his son to watch Djokovic and Nadal.
“We bought tickets in January 2020 and we can finally come! On the one hand I’m happy it feels good after all we’ve been through even if obviously it’s not yet back to normal on centre court,” added another tennis fan, Rosy De Luigi, who travelled from San Marino.
Football’s Italian Cup final in Reggio Emilio next Wednesday will also have a limited crowd, followed by Euro 2020 matches at the
Gauff faces Barty challenge: World number one Ashleigh Barty eased into the quarter-finals with a straight sets win over Russian Veronika Kudermetova.
The top-seeded Australian won through 6-3, 6-3 to set up a clash with US teenager Coco Gauff who earlier ousted Madrid winner Aryna Sabalenka.
Barty, 25, lost to Sabalenka in last weekend’s Madrid final and is warming-up for the French Open which she won in 2019.
Belarus’ Sabalenka, the world number four and seventh seed, fell 7-5, 6-3 to the 17-year-old Gauff, ranked 35, who reached her fourth quarter-final of the year.
Six of the WTA’s top ten players have already exited including second-seed Naomi Osaka of Japan, four-time Rome winner Serena Williams, Sofia Kenin and Petra Kvitova.
Defending champion Simona Halep, the third seed, was forced out with a calf injury in her second round match.