BEIJING (AFP) World number two Rafael Nadal fended off a tough challenge from hard-hitting American James Blake to advance to the quarterfinals of the China Open on Thursday with a 7-5, 6-7 (4/7), 6-3 win. Nadal, the top seed here in Beijing, and the 29-year American thrilled the crowd on centre court at the Olympic tennis venue for nearly two-and-a-half hours with their blistering ground strokes and powerful serves. The pair traded early breaks in the first set and then remained even until 5-5, when Blake surrendered his serve again, giving the 23-year-old Spaniard the opening he needed to close 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 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 at love. Its an important win because James is always a very tough opponent, Nadal said. Hes a really good player. I think he has one of the best returns... very fast. James played unbelievable in the tiebreak. Nadal said he was not frustrated when he failed to close out the match in straight sets, noting: I was playing really well. I was really happy. When I had the chance, I played aggressive.... Winning in three sets always gives you extra confidence. In the quarterfinals, Nadal who won the China Open in 2005 will face Russias Marat Safin, a crowd favourite and 2004 champion here, who upset Chilean seventh seed Fernando Gonzalez in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4. In other second round matches on the mens side of the 6.6-million-dollar mixed WTA/ATP event, Croatias Ivan Ljubicic needed three sets to defeat Polish qualifier Lukasz Kubot, who ousted defending champion Andy Roddick on Tuesday. On the womens side, 14th seed Marion Bartoli of France breezed past Chinese wild card Zhang Shuai, who had ousted top seed Dinara Safina earlier in the week. Polish 12th seed Agnieszka Radwanska beat Spains Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in three sets. Second seed Serena Williams, who will take over the number one ranking from Safina when the new WTA list is issued on Monday, was due on court later Thursday against Russian 13th seed Nadia Petrova.