Ernests Gulbis put up yet another tough fight against Rafael Nadal but once again came up just short. The explosive Latvian dominated Nadal for the first 40 minutes of the match before the King of Clay woke up just in time to prevail 1-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the third round at the Rome Masters today.
“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 the 5-time Rome champ 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.”
After a lopsided first set, Gulbis never led Nadal in the second, but came close with break opportunities early on. Nadal hung on, though it got even more harrowing when the Spaniard couldn’t serve out the set at 5-4. But Rafa promptly broke again and finally did serve out the set to force a decider.
Nadal broke again, but Gulbis fought back to level. A final break 4-4 sealed Gulbis’s fate. Ernests finished with 59 winners to Rafa’s just 13.
“I thought I was the better player in the match and also in the the second and third sets but he is the champion and well, I lost against him in Indian Wells when I also thought I played better than him,” said Gulbis who gave himself an A- grade. “He is solid and he didn’t do anything special and I made mistakes and so he won.”
Nadal will face familiar friend and foe David Ferrer in the quarterfinals tomorrow. Ferrer, who earned a walkover when Philipp Kohlschreiber withdrew with vertigo, will clinch the No. 4 seed at the French Open if he beats Nadal. But he’s just 4-18 against Rafa and hasn’t beaten Nadal on clay since their first meeting in 2004. Ferrer did get a set and nearly two a week ago in Madrid.
While Rafa struggled, his chief rivals on the day didn’t. Novak Djokovic opened play with a rousing 6-1, 6-4 win over Alexandr Dolgopolov. Afterward, Djokovic put to rest any lingering ankle issues.
“I don’t think it will bother me any more and I have forgotten about it,” he said. “And don’t think about it when I am on the court.”
The two-time Rome champ meets longtime rival Tomas Berdych on Friday. Djokovic has won 13 of 14 meetings against the big-hitting Czech though in their only clay meeting at Monte Carlo last year Berdych did manage a set.
In the late match, Roger Federer continued to look sharp with his second 6-1, 6-2 win of the event, this one coming over Frenchman Gilles Simon. Through two matches thus far Federer has been flawless as the Swiss seeks a first Rome crown.
The win sets up a first-time meeting with blossoming star Jerzy Janowicz. The fiery 22-year-old Pole outlasted Richard Gasquet 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-4 for his second big Top 10 win in as many days (he beat Tsonga yesterday).
Jeremy Chardy also fell, losing to Marcel Granoller. But it wasn’t all bad for France, Benoit Paire scored the upset of the day knocking out Juan Martin Del Potro 6-4, 7-6.
In the women’s field, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova continued on their collision course, overwhelming Dominika Cilbukova and Sloane Stephens, respectively. Sam Stosur, Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Jankovic who beat Li Na were also winners on the day.
The victory by Serena raises her current win streak of 21, equaling her career best. But the world No. 1 remains cautious.
“Nothing is ever perfect – I learned that last year when I felt perfect,” Serena said. “I am still in the danger zone.”
And so are her opponents.
Meanwhile Sharapova will face Sara Errani Friday in a rematch of their French Open final.
“She’s probably going to be tougher to play at home, with the Italian crowd helping her,” Sharapova said. “We have had some tough matches and I’ve won them, but she is an extremely good player.”
CENTRALE start 12:00 noon
 S Williams (USA) vs C Suarez Navarro (ESP) – WTA
Not Before 2:00 PM
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs  T Berdych (CZE) – ATP
Not Before 4:00 PM
 D Ferrer (ESP) vs  R Nadal (ESP) – ATP
Not Before 7:30 PM
 S Errani (ITA) vs  M Sharapova (RUS) – WTA
Not Before 9:00 PM
J Janowicz (POL) vs  R Federer (SUI) – ATP
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