BEIJING — Rafael Nadal fended off a tough challenge from James Blake to advance to the quarterfinals of the China Open on Thursday, as Serena Williams stumbled out of the WTA/ATP event in a third set tiebreak.
Nadal, the top seed in Beijing, and Blake thrilled the crowd on centre court at the 2008 Olympic Games tennis venue for nearly two-and-a-half hours before the Spanish world number two notched the win, 7-5, 6-7 (4/7), 6-3.
The pair remained even throughout most of the first set until Nadal broke the 29-year-old American for a second time to go up 6-5 and then served out the set.
In the second, Nadal -- who won Olympic gold on the same court last year -- broke Blake at love to go up 3-2, but the relentless American refused to give up, fighting off a match point and clawing back to 5-5.
Nadal quickly broke him again to go up 6-5, but Blake, the world number 24, again showed his mettle, using nifty net play to break the 23-year-old Spaniard and force a tiebreak, which Blake won in spectacular fashion.
In the third, Blake missed a golden opportunity to break Nadal at 2-2, when he had the Spaniard at love-40, and he paid for it when he double-faulted to fall behind 5-3. Nadal then served out the match.
"It's an important win because James is always a very tough opponent," Nadal said. "He's a really good player. I think he has one of the best returns... very fast. James played unbelievable in the tiebreak."
"When I had the chance, I played aggressive....Winning in three sets always gives you extra confidence," he added.
In the quarterfinals, Nadal -- who won the China Open in 2005 -- will face Russia's Marat Safin, a crowd favourite and 2004 champion here, who upset Chilean seventh seed Fernando Gonzalez in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4.
World number two Williams battled back several times but was unable to overcome Russian 13th seed Nadia Petrova, who won in three sets, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5).
The 28-year-old Williams looked lethargic in the first set, with her ground strokes sailing long and her serve broken twice to hand the 27-year-old Russian the early lead.
But the American bounced back in the second, putting a bit more pace on her shots and dictating play from the backcourt to gain a break late in the set and even the match.
In the deciding third set, Williams missed a golden opportunity to pull ahead at 4-4, blowing three break points on Petrova's serve. But she cranked up her serve to send it to a tiebreak.
Petrova took an early 5-2 lead, but Williams battled back one final time before the Russian could close it out.
Despite the loss, Williams will nevertheless take over the number one ranking from Russia's Dinara Safina when the new WTA list is issued on Monday.
In other third round matches on the women's side of the 6.6-million-dollar event, seventh seed Vera Zvonareva of Russia, Polish 12th seed Agnieszka Radwanska and 14th seed Marion Bartoli of France all advanced.
On the men's side, Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic needed three sets to defeat Polish qualifier Lukasz Kubot, who ousted defending champion Andy Roddick on Tuesday.
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