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Nadal battles into quarters

AP

Rafael Nadal was pushed to three sets for the second consecutive match before ultimately prevailing on Thursday to set up a Rome Masters quarterfinal against Andy Murray.

The top-ranked Nadal dropped behind a set and a break against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia, then took 11 of the final 12 games to win 6-7 (4-7), 6-2, 6-1 on another windy day at the Foro Italico.

“Get used to (it),” Nadal said of his recent struggles. “With the years that’s the normal thing. Everybody suffers. That’s part of the sport.”

At 27, Nadal’s best days could be behind him.

“At this age, (Bjorn) Borg was doing other things,” said Nadal, a 13-time Grand Slam winner. “It’s not possible to win for 10 years with easy scores and easy matches. At the same time, I’m sure I can do much better than I am doing.”

Nadal was looking forward to facing Murray for the first time in more than two years.

“I play against one of the top players in the world after two tough days,” Nadal said. “If I play well I’m going to have my chances, if not I’m going to spend the weekend (at home) in Mallorca.”

Murray eliminated Jurgen Melzer of Austria 7-6 (7-1), 6-4 to celebrate his 27th birthday, and Novak Djokovic fell behind 4-0 in the opening set before rallying for a 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 win over Philipp Kohlschreiber.

In an upset, the seemingly ageless Tommy Haas beat third-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka 5-7, 6-2, 6-3.

On the women’s side, Maria Sharapova’s 12-match winning streak — which included titles in Stuttgart and Madrid — ended with a 6-1, 6-4 loss to Ana Ivanovic.

Showing no signs of trouble from the left thigh injury that forced her to withdraw from Madrid, defending champion Serena Williams cruised past fellow American Varvara Lepchenko 6-1, 6-2.

Pushed for three hours by Gilles Simon to nearly midnight a day earlier, Nadal didn’t generate the usual depth with his ground strokes, and began to take control only when Youzhny started committing more unforced errors.

“The conditions were very impossible,” said Nadal, a seven-time Rome champion. “You always have to find the positive thing. I was able to play with the right motivation even if the feeling was not perfect.”

Nadal consistently ran around his backhand, a shot that also caused him concern in recent losses to David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, respectively. Of Nadal’s 29 winners, only two of them came with his backhand.

Haas, the oldest player in the draw at 36, used his expertise to give Wawrinka trouble with heavy topspin.

Haas last beat a top 10 player more than a year ago in Miami, where he took out then-No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

“These things don’t happen too often anymore, so when I take them I’m really proud of them,” the German said. He has been winning this week in Rome for the first time since he lost the 2002 final to Andre Agassi.

Wawrinka cited a back injury that occurred in colder conditions during his opening win.

“I couldn’t move too well,” he said. “It’s really nothing serious. It’s just painful and I need some rest — maybe a few days.”

Wawrinka has made a great start by winning the Australian Open and the Monte Carlo Masters, but another early exit in last week’s Madrid Open leaves his form in question with the French Open starting in 10 days.