When does Rafael Nadal officially become the underdog in a match on clay? When he’s down a set? A set and a break? A set and nearly two breaks? Match point?

How about never?

To anyone who watched Nadal’s wild and woolly 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3) comeback win over Denis Shapovalov in Rome on Thursday, that last answer must seem like the correct one. Rafa trailed by all of the above scores, and yet still managed to slide and slither and scramble his way to a victory in three and a half hours.

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Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past Shapovalov

Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past Shapovalov

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It’s the last stat—three and a half hours—that may be the most impressive. Late on Wednesday, Nadal had finished off another tough match against another tough young opponent, Jannik Sinner. When Rafa came back out less than 20 hours later, he looked less than completely ready. Shapovalov quickly took advantage, breaking Nadal in the opening game, breaking him again for 3-0, and then breaking him to start the second set.

Shapo was flying around the court; Rafa was trudging. Shapo was slinging his forehand into the corners for winners; Rafa was trying to get the ball past the service line. The Canadian is a lefty, and he took full advantage of that fact, forcing Nadal deep into his forehand corner, and not letting him backpedal for the inside-out forehands that he loves.

Tennis fans everywhere waited for the turnaround. For a millisecond, it looks like it wasn’t going to happen. Down 0-3 in the second set, Nadal went for broke on a couple of shots, instead of digging in and grinding. I wondered if he had pulled the ripcord and was going to get an early start on his Paris preparations. I should have known better. Instead, Nadal saved a break point to avoid going down 0-4, and and then broke Shapovalov from 40-0 down. You could see the tide shifting in the score, and in the shots: Now it was Nadal who was swinging freely and whipping forehand winners; now it was Shapovalov who was making tentative unforced errors.

Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past Shapovalov

Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past Shapovalov

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But credit Shapovalov for not crumbling entirely. After Nadal won the second set, the two see-sawed through a third set that was brilliant, wearying, and thoroughly unpredictable all at once. Chances were earned, and chances were squandered, by both players. Shapovalov had an early lead but couldn’t hold it. Nadal had opportunities to break late but couldn’t cash them in.

Finally, Shapovalov reached match point, twice, with Nadal serving at 5-6. On the first one, he sent a backhand long, on the second, he shanked a forehand straight up in the air. He had made it to the finish line, but he couldn’t swing his arm across it. Shapo had hit a wall, of his own making and Nadal’s. In the deciding tiebreaker, he kept going for more, and he kept missing.

“To be able to win these kinds of matches against young players give me confidence with my body,” Nadal said referring to this victory, and his equally long win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Barcelona final. “It’s true that I have to do things better for tomorrow.”

Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past Shapovalov

Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past Shapovalov

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Nadal didn’t reach his top level in this one, the way he did against Sinner the night before. He did improve as the match went on, but rather than storming to a comeback victory, he needed some good fortune to survive and advance. Now he’ll have to do it all over again on Friday.

“The main thing today for me is recover physically, no?” Nadal said. “Have been a positive victory for me. I fighted until the end a lot to be in quarterfinals. Tomorrow is a chance to play a quarterfinals match. I hope to be ready to compete well.”

“Let’s see how I wake up tomorrow morning.”

One thing we know is that Nadal won’t be out of it until the final point has been played.

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Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past Shapovalov

Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past Shapovalov