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Nadal Keeps His Nerve To Beat Gulbis; Paire Upsets Del Potro

Rome, Italy

Nadal© AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal celebrates a famous win at the Foro Italico on Thursday evening.

Fifth seed and six-time champion Rafael Nadal overcame a display of power tennis from qualifier Ernests Gulbis on Thursday to book his place in the Internazionali BNL d'Italia quarter-finals.

Nadal survived his second epic encounter in as many weeks with a 1-6, 7-5, 6-4 win in two hours and 38 minutes. Last week, he overcame David Ferrer in a lengthy Mutua Madrid Open quarter-final. On Friday, Nadal meets his fellow Spaniard again. It will be their 23rd FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting.

Nadal was overpowered early in the match by the free-swinging Gulbis, who also won the first set when the pair last met in Indian Wells before the Spaniard recovered to win 7-5 in the third in one of the best matches of the year. Gulbis again blasted winners from both wings and at times treated Nadal's second serve with disdain. Yet Nadal, who has reached finals in all seven tournament appearances this year (winning five titles), found a way to win.

“If you hit as hard as you can and hit every ball at 216 or 220 [kph] and that means being the best player, then perhaps he was the best player,” said Nadal. “For me, the best player [tries to] find solutions against the other player. When I served for the second set and I lost and also in the third, I still was fighting and I found solutions, so the best player won.”

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Gulbis produced a devastating display of power and perfect placement in the first set, when he hit 16 winners – including six aces – to take it 6-1 in 34 minutes.  

Nadal came close to being broken in the fifth game of the second set, but kept his nerve before sealing a 5-3 lead after Gulbis struck a backhand crosscourt wide. 

Gulbis had good fortune in the ninth game, when his forehand return hit the net for a winner on break point. At 4-5, he then clawed his way back from 0/40 with five straight winners. 

GulbisNadal looked shell-shocked. The timing and fluency of Gulbis’ serve and forehand were remarkable. But Nadal played smart, keeping the ball in play and waited for an error or a half chance to clinch the set 7-5. 

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In third sets this year, Nadal had compiled a 6-1 record. So, perhaps it came as no surprise when he took a 4-2 lead in the decider. However, Nadal was broken to 15 as Gulbis’ backhand came to life. Gulbis won seven points in a row to level the score-line at 4-4.

Nadal created two match points at 5-4, when Gulbis served at 15/40. But Gulbis was brave, striking a booming serve and forehand winner to get back to deuce. He tried his luck again, but fate favoured Nadal.

World No. 46 Gulbis was attempting to beat Nadal for the first time in six meetings. The 2010 semi-finalist hit 15 aces and converted four of his nine break point opportunities.

“I was aggressive from the first point on,” said Gulbis. “In the second set, he got into longer rallies and he slowly picked up into the match. I don't know how good or bad he played... Against him, you have to win. This is why he is who he is.”

Nadal has a 33-2 match record (28-2 on clay) this season and he's reached the final in all seven tournaments he's played. Last Sunday, in Madrid, he lifted his ATP World Tour-best fifth trophy of the season and a record 23rd ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title (d. Wawrinka).

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Ferrer advanced to the last eight when Philipp Kohlschreiber pulled out ahead of their match, because of vertigo.

Earlier in the day, Benoit Paire recorded his first Top 10 win. 

Paire knocked out Juan Martin del Potro, currently No. 7 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, 6-4, 7-6(3) in 83 minutes. The Frenchman is making his debut at the Foro Italico in Rome and will next meet Marcel Granollers in the quarter-finals on Friday.

Granollers battled past Jeremy Chardy 6-4, 1-6, 7-5 in two hours and 12 minutes for a place in his second ATP World Tour Masters 1000 quarter-finals. Last year, at the Rogers Cup in Toronto he fell to Janko Tipsarevic.

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