Serbia's Novak Djokovic returns the ball to Brazil's Tomaz Bellucci on May 12, 2016 in Rome
Rome (AFP) - Defending champion Novak Djokovic overcame a first-set scare to set up a Rome Masters quarter-final with Rafael Nadal thanks to a 0-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over Tomaz Bellucci on Thursday.
Fresh from victory over British rival Andy Murray in the Madrid Masters last weekend, Djokovic is looking unstoppable as he seeks to build form for the tougher challenge of the French Open at Roland Garros later this month.
But the Serbian top seed left watchers puzzled in a one-sided opening set on Centre Court at the Foro Italico, where his service game, and his return of serve went awry as Bellucci raced to 6-0 after converting all three of his break points.
Djokovic said he was seeing the ball "like a watermelon", and admitted: "It was a complete Bellucci storm and I was blown away from the court.
"So I had to change something when I restarted. At the end, I had a W (for winner) after this match and that's all that matters."
Once Djokovic awoke from his slumber, he had few problems rolling through the towering Brazilian to set up a mouth-watering clash with Spanish nemesis Nadal on Friday.
From 48 previous meetings, Djokovic holds the edge with 25 wins, and has won their last six meetings. Nadal's last win over the Serbian came in the final of Roland Garros two years ago.
Djokovic expects a "big challenge" to make it eight on the trot, but said: "The fact I played a left-hander today hopefully will help me. And I've played him in Roma before, so I know what to expect."
Earlier, Nadal, a seven-time winner in Rome, overcame losing the first set on tie break to Australian Nick Kyrgios to win their third round clash 6-7 (3/7), 6-2, 6-4.
"I'm playing well, I feel like I am playing at the right level. Today was an important victory," he said.
Both his and Djokovic's path to victory have been cleared by the absences of Swiss pair Roger Federer, a four-time finalist, and Stan Wawrinka.
A troublesome back injury that forced him out of Madrid last week meant Federer just wasn't in the game as he sunk to a 7-6 (7/2), 6-4 third round defeat to Austrian 13th seed Dominic Thiem.
Wawrinka, the fourth seed who was stunned in the second round in Madrid last week by Kyrgios, was ousted by Argentina's Juan Monaco 7-6 (7/5), 6-3, 6-3.
The 22-year-old Thiem now meets Kei Nishikori after the Japanese sixth seed swept aside Frenchman Richard Gasquet, the 11th seed, of France 6-1, 6-4.
Another top name exited the tournament in ninth seed David Ferrer, the Spaniard's campaign cut short by lucky loser Lucas Pouille of France. Pouille will now meet Monaco for a place in the semi-finals.
- Goffin crushes Berdych -
British second seed Murray, meanwhile, swept aside Frenchman Jeremy Chardy to set up a quarter-final clash with David Goffin after the Belgian, the 12th seed, whitewashed the Czech eighth seed Tomas Berdych 6-0, 6-0.
On Goffin, Murray warned: "I didn't see any of the match today, but to win love and love against one of the best players in the world (Berdych), you've got to be feeling good."
If successful, the Scot will meet either Monaco or Pouille in what should, on paper, be a manageable semi-final but Murray said: "I have to improve, matches get tougher as the week goes on.
"If I keep improving and adjusting each day, hopefully I can have a good run."
Serena Williams, meanwhile, overcame a tight first set against compatriot and qualifier Christina McHale to prevail 7-6 (9/7), 6-1 and maintain her bid for a fourth Italian Open crown. With only three other seeds left in the competition, she is not expected to fail.
The American world number one is also seeking a fourth French Open title and admitted her quarter-final opponent, Russian ninth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, who stunned 2015 finalist and eighth seed Carla Suarez Navarro 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, should give her a good run-out.
"I think it's great," said Williams.
"Right now she's probably one of the best clay court players out there so it's the perfect opportunity for me, win or lose, leading up to Roland Garros."