World number one Rafa Nadal came within two games of a shock defeat on his favourite clay before overcoming Italian qualifier Paolo Lorenzi 6-7 6-4 6-0 in the second round of the Rome Masters today.
After his 37-match winning streak on the red dirt was ended by Novak Djokovic last week in the final of the Madrid Open, the out-of-sorts Spaniard had to fight back from a set down before reeling off the last eight games to retain his record of never losing consecutive matches on clay.
Nadal's nervy performance contrasted with the imperious Novak Djokovic who crushed Polish qualifier Lukasz Kubot 6-0 6-3 earlier to stretch his unbeaten run for the year to 33 matches.
Djokovic can overtake Nadal as world number one this week if he wins the title and Nadal fails to reach the semis.
Rome champion for five of the past six years with a 27-1 win-loss record, Nadal broke Lorenzi in the sixth game, but the Italian, ranked 148 in the world, refused to be intimidated by a strangely expressionless Nadal and broke back immediately to 15 before taking the set to a tie-break.
In Rafa fashion, Lorenzi chased everything down, forcing the Nadal groundstrokes to splutter, most visibly on the forehand and overhead.
From another high ball into the Rome sun at 6-5 in the tie-break, the Spaniard mistimed another smash to surrender the set, bringing the Italian crowd to their feet.
The carnival atmosphere subsided as Nadal broke serve in the very first game of the second set but the gutsy 29-year-old Lorenzi was still mixing up his game well and after the Spaniard took a tumble to stain his canary yellow shirt, Lorenzi broke back in the sixth game to threaten a huge upset.
Lorenzi showed anxiety for the first time though at 4-4 and Nadal broke again before holding his serve to square the match, winning the final point with a smash and scream of "vamos".
In the decider Nadal rediscovered the timing that had eluded him in the previous two and raced to the finish line against a tiring opponent.
Earlier Djokovic, seeking his seventh title of a sensational year, was rarely made to sweat in the midday heat as he wrong-footed Kubot with a series of flashing forehands and backhands to take the first set to love.
"Ora inizia la music: D.J.okovic (now the music begins: D.J.okovic)" read a banner in the stands as the Serbian went through his repertoire.
He even had luck on his side when he earned a break at the start of the second set with a netcord but Kubot, ranked 141 in the world, finally registered on the scoreboard in the 10th game, raising his arms aloft in traditional style to cheers from the crowd in the Foro Italico.
Djokovic's victory was never in doubt, however, as he marched on towards John McEnroe's record 42-match winning run from the start of a season in 1984.
"It's a great way to start as you waste little energy," Djokovic told reporters. "He [Kubot] was making a lot of unforced errors and coming to the net which didn't give me a lot of rhythm," said Djokovic, who next faces Stanislas Wawrinka after the Swiss defeated Italian Filippo Volandri in three sets.
"It's very difficult to keep your mental state high for so long but I'm used to the pressure," said the 23-year old. "I'm maybe lacking a good physical workout with these short games but am maintaining the feelgood factor."