Rafael Nadal still trying to find best form as he sets up quarter-final with Andy Murray
Pair haven't played each other for more than two years
Rafael Nadal continued to search for his best clay form, surviving a shaky start on Thursday to reach the quarter-finals of the ATP-WTA Rome Masters and a date with Andy Murray.
The top seed beat Russian Mikhail Youzhny, winning 12 of the last 13 games in a 6-7 (4/7), 6-2, 6-3 win which took almost three hours.
Murray and Nadal have not played each other for more than two and a half years, when Murray beat the Spaniard in a 2011 Tokyo final.
Less than 24 hours after being severely tested by Gilles Simon, Nadal found himself in trouble against Youzhny, who last won a set against the world number one back in 2008.
After spending 73 minutes in losing the opener, Nadal finally found enough form to take the victory at a tournament where he is looking to win for the eighth time.
“Andy will be a very tough match, he’s playing well, but I’m confident I can do it,” said Nadal, who added that if he does not take his chances against the Scot he “will be spending the weekend [at home] in Mallorca.
“I’ve had two long matches and I had hoped not to be on the court for so long, but that’s the way it is.”
Murray, who quit here with back problems a year ago and eventually required surgery, closed out a welcome win on his 27th birthday with an ace against Jurgen Melzer.
The Scot won 7-6 (7/1), 6-4 to advance to his second straight clay quarter-final after Madrid a week ago.
“To be honest it’s not a bad thing for me to play Nadal because I haven’t played him for a long time,” said Murray.
“With the French Open and Wimbledon I would be quite interested to play him to see how his game changed and all the things I can do to make it difficult for him.
“It might be better for me to play with him now rather than at the French or Wimbledon.”
Meanwhile, Monte Carlo champion Stanislas Wawrinka joined fellow Swiss Roger Federer on the scrapheap as back pain resulted in a 5-7, 6-2, 6-3 loss to 15th seed Tommy Haas.
Wawrinka said that after playing a match in the chill two days earlier, he started having back problems, but he said the injury should not affect his chances for Roland Garros, starting in 10 days time.
“It was difficult to give the intensity. I know my back, I just need some rest - maybe two days is enough - But I’m not worried about it,” he said.
Second seed Novak Djokovic came from a set down to beat Philipp Kohlschreiber 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, while David Ferrer, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Jeremy Chardy, who beat Federer 24 hours earlier, also reached the quarter-finals.
In women’s play, reigning champion Serena Williams brushed aside Varvara Lepchenko 6-1, 6-2, while Chinese second seed Li Na defeated 2010 French Open finalist Samantha Stosur 6-3, 6-1 to reach the quarter-finals.
“Today I was very focused on what I had to do on the court to put pressure on her,” said Li, who won in 68 minutes with five breaks of the 30-year-old Australian.
“Putting on pressure was the key to the match, otherwise she can totally control you.”
Li, runner-up in Rome in 2012, will next face Italian 10th seed Sara Errani, who beat Czech Petra Cetkovska 6-3, 7-6 (7/3).
Third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska put out Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 French Open winner, 6-4, 6-1, while sixth seed Jelena Jankovic beat Flavia Pennetta 6-2, 6-3 and Ana Ivanovic handed Maria Sharapova her first loss of the spring clay season as she beat the Russian eighth seed 6-1, 6-4.
Sharapova had won back-to-back titles in Stuttgart and Madrid, compiling a dozen straight victories.
“I wasn’t sharp today but Ana played well,” said Sharapova. “I’m going to try to recover the next two or three days, settle down in Paris and get my body ready for a week of training.”