PARIS (Reuters) - Seven-times champion Rafael Nadal held off a brave yet sporadic challenge from Italian Fabio Fognini 7-6(5) 6-4 6-4 to book his place in the fourth round of the French Open on Saturday.
Third seed Nadal suffered the occasional wobble but, for the first time this year, did not drop a set as he set up a meeting with Japanese 13th seed Kei Nishikori on his 27th birthday on Monday.
The Spaniard, who struggled in his first two rounds, was bothered by Fognini's clever shots early on but once he got the measure of the 27th seed the contest was effectively over.
Nadal, who has 11 grand-slam titles to his name, sealed the win after two hours 45 minutes when Fognini sent a backhand long.
"I think he is a fantastic player," Nadal said of his opponent in a courtside interview.
"Winning the first set is always important especially after losing it in the first matches."
Nadal's ability to play the important points as if they were a matter of life and death made the difference against Fognini. The Italian entered Court Philippe Chatrier with a swagger but the smile was wiped off his face eventually.
Fognini looked the more aggressive player at the start and broke for 3-2 after sending Nadal left and right, finishing off a long rally with a routine smash.
His sudden backhand accelerations caused the Spaniard problems but Nadal broke back for 4-4 when his opponent netted an easy forehand.
He had three set points in the 10th game, only for Fognini to coolly see them off - one with a stunning forehand winner.
The Italian broke in the following game when Nadal sent a forehand long but the muscular Spaniard broke back to force a tiebreak.
Nadal, facing the prospect of losing the opening set in the first three rounds at Roland Garros for the first time, won an epic, lung-burning point after Fognini was caught off guard by his opponent's back spin to open up a 5-4 lead in the decider.
Nadal then had the upper hand, to Fognini's frustration.
In the second game of the second set, after netting a forehand passing shot, the Italian tried to volley his racket with his foot, to the crowd's amusement.
At change of ends after the third game, Fognini had his thumb and forefinger treated for blisters and could not resist jokingly showing the trainer his middle finger, with a big smile on his face.
Nadal, who is looking to become the first man to win the same grand-slam title eight times, meant business however, and closed the affair after resisting a late fightback by Fognini. (Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Clare Fallon)