Rome: Top seeds Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal reached the quarter-finals of the Italian Open along with another former winner Alexander Zverev on Thursday as spectators returned to the stands for the first time in Italy.
Defending champion Djokovic needed just 70 minutes to sweep past Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-2, 6-1, with the Foro Italico venue filled to 25 percent of capacity for the first time amid the easing of Covid-19 restrictions.
“It was not good, it was great. I missed the crowd,” said the 33-year-old Djokovic.
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 last week’s Madrid Masters winner Zverev, the sixth seed, who needed nearly three hours to see off Japan’s Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Nadal lost to Zverev, 24, in the Madrid quarter-finals last week with the German, also a former Italian Open winner, having beaten Djokovic in the 2017 final.
Djokovic and Nadal have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them, playing each other in the final five times.
“The main thing today for me is recover physically,” said 34-year-old Nadal, who has fallen early in two clay-court Masters tournaments in Monte Carlo and Madrid ahead of Roland Garros.
Djokovic, a five-time Rome winner, next plays Monte Carlo champion Stefano Tsitsipas who ended the run of home hope Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (7/3), 6-2 in one hour and 36 minutes.
It will be a rematch of last year’s French Open semi-final which the Serbian won.
“It always feels like home coming back to Rome,” said Djokovic, who has never failed to reach the quarter-finals in his 15 appearances in the clay-court event.
After losing his opening service game, Djokovic powered back with five breaks of serve to seal the win on his sixth match point.
“He started well, but I managed to break back straight away and establish the control and consistency,” said the 18-time Grand Slam winner.
“I am on a good trajectory and hopefully tomorrow will be even better.”
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.
In the women’s tournament, world number one Ashleigh Barty set up a clash with “extremely dangerous” US teenager Coco Gauff for a place in the semi-final.
The top-seeded Australian won 6-3, 6-3 against Russian Veronika Kudermetova after 17-year-old Gauff earlier ousted Madrid Open winner Aryna Sabalenka.