Nadal struggles to beat qualifier at Italian Open

Rafael Nadal struggled to a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-0 win over 148th-ranked qualifier Paolo Lorenzi in his opening match at the Italian Open on Wednesday, looking far from the form that has helped him dominate on clay courts for the past six years.

It marked the third consecutive match in which Nadal dropped the first set, having also rallied to beat Roger Federer in the Madrid Open semifinals and then losing in straight sets to Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final. Nadal has never lost consecutive matches on his favorite surface.

Djokovic stretched his unbeaten start this year to 33 matches with a 6-0, 6-3 win over Polish qualifier Lukasz Kubot earlier. The Serb has a chance to take the top ranking from Nadal if he wins this tournament and Nadal fails to reach the semifinals.

The event at the Foro Italico is a key warmup for the French Open, which starts in 11 days.

Nadal struggled with his forehand throughout the match, consistently sending routine shots from the center of the court into the net during the opening two sets.

Lorenzi used a serve-and-volley strategy at the start, then varied his game more as Nadal started making uncharacteristic errors to conclude long baseline rallies.

Lorenzi beat Madrid semifinalist Thomas Bellucci in the first round and has never won back-to-back matches at a Masters Series event. The crowd was clearly behind the Siena resident, chanting “Paolo, Paolo” after time he won a big point.

After trading breaks midway through the first set, Lorenzi won three consecutive points to take the tiebreaker, which ended when Nadal sent an overhead smash wide.

In the second set, Nadal wasted an early break before Lorenzi netted a backhand to hand Nadal a 5-4 lead, after which the Spaniard served out the set and never looked back.

Nadal’s match came in sharp contrast to the dominating performance of Djokovic, whose unbeaten streak trails only John McEnroe’s 42-0 start in 1984.

Many spectators were still getting to their seats by the time Djokovic wrapped up the first set in 23 minutes, and the 141st-ranked Kubot was so overwhelmed that he fell to the clay on his backside after chasing down one too many shots during the opening point of the second set.

The Pole finally won a game to get to 1-3 in the second set when he landed a drop volley winner, drawing an ironic applause from the crowd.

Djokovic never faced a break point, got 70 percent of his first serves in – with no double faults – and won all seven of his approaches to the net.

Overall, Djokovic has won 35 consecutive matches since Serbia’s Davis Cup triumph in December, tying him for sixth in the Open era with Bjorn Borg (May-Aug. 1978) and Thomas Muster (April-June 1995).

Guillermo Vilas holds the Open era record for longest winning streak at 46 matches, established in 1977.

Djokovic’s next opponent will be 14th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka, who overcame a challenge from Italian wild card Filippo Volandri 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.

In another second-round match, Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina beat former top-10 player Gilles Simon of France 6-4, 6-2.

In women’s action, Slovenian qualifier Polona Hercog eliminated 12th-seeded Andrea Petkovic of Germany 6-4, 6-3 and Greta Arn of Hungary defeated Italian wild card Alberta Brianti 6-4, 6-4.

Federer, who has never won this tournament, will play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France in a night match.

In women’s action later, top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki opens against Australian qualifier Anastasia Rodionova.