In the end it was a comfortable enough win for the seven-time defending champion, but he was made to look sluggish on occasions against an opponent he would normally be expected to dispatch in double-quick time.
Next up, on his 27th birthday on Monday, will be Japan’s Kei Nishikori as the Spaniard continues his campaign to become the first man in tennis history to win the same Grand Slam title eight times.
Nishikori defeated Benoit Paire of France 6-3, 6-7 (3/7), 6-4, 6-1 to become the first Japanese man to reach the last 16 at Roland Garros in 75 years.
Nadal went into his 56th career match at Roland Garros in a bad mood, complaining about the cold, overcast conditions Paris has produced and “joke” Roland Garros scheduling he felt could disadvantage him against Fognini.
The seven-time champion lost the opening set of his first two ties, the first time that has happened to him in Paris, and he nearly got off to another shocker as Fognini, like Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan before him, went for broke.
Dropped service games by Nadal in the fifth and 11th games produced a tie-break that the defending champion led from the start to win 7/5.
Fognini again had Nadal struggling on serve at the start of the second set, winning over the centre-court crowd with his bold tactics and expressive nature.
But he failed to convert a couple of break points and, after the Italian dropped his serve and received treatment for a blister on his hand, Nadal started to race away with the match.
He pocketed the set 6-4 and when he broke at he start of the third set, the writing was on the wall for in increasingly distracted Fognini who fired his last bullets by clawing back three games to get to 5-4 before Nadal served out.