ROME — After four disappointing tournaments in a row, Denis Shapovalov fell just short of pulling off one of the biggest victories of his career on Thursday.
The Canadian just couldn't land the knockout blow against the player widely considered to be the best clay-court competitor in history.
Spanish star Rafael Nadal rallied from a break down in both the second and third sets to beat Shapovalov 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3) in a third-round thriller at the Italian Open that lasted three hours 27 minutes.
"That's why he's won so many matches on clay," Shapovalov said. "I mean, obviously he's a great player. There's no question about that. Just a tough one."
A 13-time French Open champion and a 20-time Grand Slam winner, Nadal also has won the Italian Open on nine occasions. He is 456-42 all-time on clay.
Nadal has now won 19 matches in a row against left-handers — his last setback against a lefty was in 2017 when he lost to a then-18-year-old Shapovalov at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, a result that put the Canadian in the national spotlight.
Shapovalov, from Richmond Hill, Ont., came into the Italian Open having not won more than one match at his past four events. He was eliminated by lower-ranked players each time.
"These matches, you have nothing to lose," Shapovalov said of facing Nadal. "In tennis, I don't know, we're lucky. In the UFC, you have like one chance to fight the top guy. In tennis, you have a lot of chances.
"Of course, in this kind of sense it's great to have these opportunities. You go out, play with nothing to lose. Who is going to give me crap for losing to Rafa? Of course, it helps to play freely.
"I also think I have the game, I have what it takes to beat these guys. It's not a surprise to me. It's just a tough loss. Of course, it's not the first time Rafa's done this. I'm not the first person to lose with match points. For sure he does well with the pressure in those moments."
The 13th-seeded Shapovalov failed to convert on two match points on Nadal's serve with a 6-5 lead in the third set.
In the second set, Shapovalov was up 3-1 and had a 40-0 lead on serve in the ensuing game before the second-seeded Nadal stormed back for a break to get back into the match.
Shapovalov had the edge in winners (41-29) and aces (12-2).
Nadal is now 3-2 against Shapovalov, with one of the Canadian's wins coming by virtue of a walkover.
"Of course, there's a lot of positives," Shapovalov said. "In the end I lost, so that's it. As far as this week, it's much better level-wise than the previous weeks. That's how athletes are. If you lose, you lose. It's not very positive."
It was the second longest best-of-three match on the ATP Tour this season. Nadal needed 3:38 to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Barcelona Open final last month.
"(It) is an important victory for me," Nadal said. "(To) be able to win matches like today, three hours 27, in Barcelona final three hours 40, 38, long matches. To be able to win these kind of matches against young players give me confidence with my body. It's true that I have to do things better for tomorrow."
Meanwhile, Montreal's Felix Auger-Aliassime lost 7-6 (3), 6-1 to Argentine qualifier Federico Delbonis in another third-round match on Thursday.
In women's doubles, Toronto's Sharon Fichman and Mexican partner Giuliana Olmos upset top seeds Elise Mertens of Belgium and Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan 1-6, 6-1 (10-4) in the round of 16.
Ottawa's Gabriela Dabrowski and American partner Asia Muhammad lost 7-6 (2), 6-2 to American Coco Gauff and Russian Veronika Kudermetova in another round-of-16 match.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2021.