Claycourt master Rafa Nadal passed his first real test of this year's French Open with a 7-6(4) 6-4 6-1 victory against Italian rising star Jannik Sinner as his quest for a record-breaking 13th title gathered momentum on Tuesday.
The Spaniard, also looking to match Roger Federer's record of 20 Grand Slam men's singles titles, was stretched by the 19-year-old Sinner as he set up a clash with Argentine Diego Schwartzman, who beat him in the Italian Open quarter-finals last month.
The 34-year-old Nadal’s 97 previous victories at Roland Garros made the difference in key moments with the Spaniard rallying from a break down in the first two sets.
Sinner, the first French Open debutant to reach the last eight since Nadal in 2005, confirmed his immense potential but lacked just a bit of composure when it mattered.
“Sinner is a very, very young talent with a lot of power, great shots. For two sets it was tough, especially in the second set I was lucky to be back,” said Nadal after a match played in cold conditions that ended at 1.26am local time, the latest finish at a French Open.
“The conditions were a little bit difficult, he was hitting every ball very hard and with this cold, my speed is not there. It was hard for me to put him out of position.
“Now I have two, well almost one and a half days off to rest and practice.”
South Tyrolian Sinner hit powerful groundstrokes, putting Nadal on the backfoot in many rallies on court Philippe Chatrier, only for the Mallorcan to unlock his own massive forehand to turn the tide.
The big-hitting Sinner had the first break point, in the fifth game, but the Italian made an unforced error. Nadal went into the contest having won 48 of his 50 service games but he was in trouble again at 5-5 when Sinner set up two break points.
He staved off the first with a forehand winner, and the second when Sinner’s return of an ill-timed drop shot by the Spaniard flew long. From deuce, Sinner created another break chance, which was converted when Nadal’s forehand went wide.
Nadal had his first break points in the following game and he converted the third with a stunning forehand winner down the line. The Spaniard was more consistent in the tiebreak as he moved one set up.
Sinner, who was three when Nadal first lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires, took time out to have his right abductor muscle massaged. He then came back on court with all guns blazing, breaking for 3-1.
Nadal broke back immediately as Sinner showed his first signs of frustration and the Spaniard broke again in the ninth game before wrapping the set on serve, having significantly raised his game.
Sinner, winner of last year’s ATP NextGen Finals, then hit a wall and despite the Italian’s best efforts and energy, Nadal moved 4-0 up and did not release his grip, ending it with an overhead smash.