Spanish tennis great Rafael Nadal ran into a buzz saw Friday in the quarterfinals of the Monte-Carlo Masters, falling 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 to in-form Russian Andrey Rublev.
The 11-time champion had convincingly won his previous two matches over the world No. 8 on hard courts and was not expected to have any serious difficulties on his beloved clay, particularly after having started the tournament with a pair of lopsided victories over Federico Delbonis and Grigor Dimitrov.
But after recovering an early break of serve and leveling the match at 2-2, Nadal committed two double faults en route to dropping serve in the fifth game and another in falling behind 5-2.
Rublev, meanwhile, used his potent ground strokes during that stretch to dictate the baseline rallies and force his opponent into short points, most of which were won by the Russian.
After wrapping up the opener by holding serve in a long game, the Russian continued his dominance at the start of the second set.
While an out-of-sorts Nadal hurt his cause with backhand unforced errors that had him looking toward his coach with exasperation, Rublev was nearly flawless from the baseline and used his down-the-line forehand to heap pressure on the world No. 3 and grab a 3-1 lead.
Even so, Nadal was starting to find some solutions to the Rublev puzzle, one of which was to draw the Russian to the net with short balls and try to take advantage of his shaky net play.
Rublev also started to make a few mistakes from the baseline, and that enabled the Spaniard to reel off four straight games to take the second set.
The greatest clay-court player of all time had clearly seized the momentum, but it surprisingly shifted back to the Russian in the decider.
Although Nadal recovered an early service break to level the third set at 1-1, he let the match slip away by losing his serve two more times to fall behind 4-1.
The Russian, who went on to clinch victory three games later with an inside-out forehand winner, humbly admitted afterward that the 13-time Roland Garros champion was not close to his best level.
"Of course it's one of my best victories for sure," Rublev was quoted as saying on the ATP Tour's website. "But if you look at (it) from (the) other side, how he feels, for sure he didn't play his even 'good' level today."
Next up for Rublev in Saturday's semifinals will be unseeded Norwegian Casper Ruud, who defeated Italy's Fabio Fognini 6-4, 6-3 on Friday.
The other semifinal will pit Greek world No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas against another surprise semifinalist, the United Kingdom's Daniel Evans, who stunned top-ranked Novak Djokovic earlier in the week and rallied to defeat 15th-ranked Belgian David Goffin 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 in the quarterfinals.
The Monte-Carlo Masters is a key tune-up event for the French Open, tennis' most prestigious clay-court tournament, which has been delayed by a week due to coronavirus concerns and is now scheduled to be played from May 30 to June 13. EFE