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Nadal Back From The Brink; Stepanek Ousts Murray

Paris (Bercy), France

Radek Stepanek© Getty ImagesRadek Stepanek had lost all three of his previous meetings with Andy Murray.

One day after saving five match points in a marathon encounter against Nicolas Almagro, Rafael Nadal was once again taken the distance as he fought to secure a place in the BNP Paribas Masters quarter-finals.

Tommy Robredo served for the match at 5-4 in the deciding set against his fellow Spaniard, but World No. 2 Nadal hit back to prevail 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 in two hours and 20 minutes Thursday at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament.

"The better new is I didn't play my best but I played much better than yesterday," said Nadal. "I felt the ball much better than yesterday. For moments, I felt I have the control of the ball. I have the chance to play big rallies without having mistakes. So that's very important for me."

Following the top-ranked Roger Federer’s shock exit to Julien Benneteau on Wednesday, Nadal could significantly close the gap on his rival at the top of the South African Airways 2009 ATP Rankings – setting the stage for a dramatic showdown at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals and the battle to be crowned 2009 ATP World Tour Champion.

Coming into the BNP Paribas Masters, World No. 1 Federer led his rival by 1,495 points in the South African Airways 2009 ATP Rankings, but could see his lead cut to a mere 305 points should Nadal capture his sixth tour-level title of the season this week. An undefeated champion at the eight-player season finale, which begins 22 November in London, would gain 1,500 rankings points.  

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The 23-year-old Nadal is bidding to win his 16th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophy, the same amount as Federer and just one less than all-time leader Andre Agassi. On his debut appearance in Paris (Bercy) two years ago, he advanced to the final where he lost to David Nalbandian. The Mallorcan is also chasing his 400th tour-level match win and currently stands on a 398-87 mark.

Nadal takes a 3-1 career lead into his quarter-final clash with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who earlier defeated French compatriot Gilles Simon in straight sets. In their most recent clash at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in February, Nadal prevailed in three close sets.

"He's playing really well," Nadal said of the Frenchman. "Sure, he's playing at home in good conditions for him - indoor, fast court, France - so probably he's gonna be the favourite tomorrow. But that's the tennis. I'm gonna try to play better, to play my match."

World No. 4 Andy Murray was less fortunate as No. 14-ranked Radek Stepanek recovered from a disastrous start to defeat the fourth seed 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.

In a 23-minute first set, Murray broke serve twice as he raced out to a 5-0 score line and swiftly wrapped up a one-set lead. Stepanek was quick to respond though, attacking Murray at every opportunity and reaping the rewards with a service break in the second game of the second set.

The Czech took the initiative early in the deciding set, breaking to lead 2-0 and again later for a 5-2 advantage. Murray was able to recoup one of the breaks as Stepanek faltered in the eighth game, but the Karvina native made no such mistake at the second time of asking and served out victory after 97 minutes.

It was Stepanek’s first victory in four meetings with Murray, and puts the right-hander into his eighth ATP World Tour quarter-final of the season. The 30 year old, who will represent his country in the Davis Cup final against Spain next month, titled at the Brisbane International (d. Verdasco) and the SAP Open (d. Fish) in San Jose at the start of the year.

The 22-year-old Murray was coming off his 14th ATP World Tour title at last week’s Valencia Open 500 (d. Youzhny), following a six-week absence from the tour with a wrist injury. The Scot will now have nine days to prepare himself for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, the elite eight-man season finale to be played at The O2 in London.

"Obviously to win a tournament after that long out was great," said Murray, reflecting on his win in Valencia. "I wanted to try and play as many matches as possible. I would have signed up for playing seven matches and winning six of them before these couple of tournaments, and it was kind of just what I needed before London. I get nine days' rest to get rid of all the niggles and stiffness. I'll be feeling good going in there, I'm sure; a lot better than I would have been if I had gone out early both weeks."

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