PARIS, June 1 (Reuters) - Seven-times champion Rafael Nadal picked up some momentum at the French Open on Saturday by holding off a brave but sporadic challenge from Fabio Fognini 7-6(5) 6-4 6-4 to book his place in the fourth round.
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-seeded Italian 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.
Having entered the tournament with five claycourt titles under his belt, Nadal showed some nerves in his fist matches but he is confident he can turn things around in time to become the first man to win the same grand slam eight times.
"It happens often, especially here in Paris. If I remember well, in 2011, the week was very -- first week of the tournament was extremely difficult," he told a news conference.
"It was even worse than this year, at least mentally. I was extremely tired, whereas I'm not tired right now.
"I am not playing with the right calm during the whole match. It's not a physical thing. You cannot lose your physical performance in two weeks.
"I am not playing well here for the moment, but we are in the second week. Now we start the moment that I need to change a little bit my dynamic. I have my opportunity on Monday, and I really have big hopes that I will have the chance to change that."
LIFE AND DEATH
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 meant business, however, and closed the affair after resisting a late fightback by Fognini.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Clare Fallon and Stephen Wood)