Rome Masters: Can Federer or Nadal catch inspired Djokovic?
Hot on the heels of Madrid comes the third clay Masters in Rome, the last ahead of Roland Garros
Rome is the last clay Masters in the calendar, having switched places with Madrid this year.
It has a certain Italian vibe -friendly, relaxed and easy-going, yet passionate and absorbed. Everyone is out to have fun with friends and family, take in the sun, and wear their hearts on their sleeves.
There are some big changes at the beautiful Foro Italico this year, however, as the event has returned to a combined men’s and women’s tournament for the first time in 33 years.
The new 10,500-seater Centre Court was opened last year and is a near perfect arena that echoes the shape of Rome’s most famous site, the Colosseum.
It manages to combine great sight lines while retaining an intimacy that few other Masters showpieces can match.
The second show court, Stadio Pietrangeli, has changed from a small, open-access arena to a modern, ticket-only court, while a third 3,000-seater has been added, along with two new practice courts.
With bigger crowds, more courts and double the number of players, Rome will have to work hard to keep its special ambience.
What hasn’t changed is the favourite for the men’s title: Rafael Nadal.
He has won the Rome event five times already so he could break yet more new territory by becoming the first man in the Open era to win at least six titles at three tournaments: He won his seventh Monte Carlo Masters and his sixth Barcelona titles just a few weeks back.
Meanwhile, world No2 Novak Djokovic continues his unbeaten run in 2011 after defeating Nadal in straight sets in the Madrid final.
The Serb has now won 32 consecutive matches this year and he won the Rome title in 2008 and reached the final in 2009.
Currently trailing in their wake is Roger Federer who is, at the moment, always the bridesmaid and never the bride.
He has lost to one or other of Nadal or Djokovic in all but one of his tournaments since winning in Doha in the first week of the year.
He nevertheless has the third best record of the year, failing only once to fall short of the semi-finals. Rome is one of the few Masters he has never won but he reached the finals in 2003 and 2006 and the semis in 2009.
But who will be their main contenders as they make their final push for the French Open?
Quarter one: Rafael Nadal
The top seed faces stern competition in his quarter, though the biggest name from his Madrid quarter, Juan Martin del Potro, is missing from Rome with hip injury. The most interesting prospect arises in his first match, where the surprise Madrid semi-finalist, Tomaz Bellucci, lurks.
The Brazilian is full of confidence and in superlative form, taking out Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych and pushing Djokovic to the limits in Madrid. He could make life difficult at this early stage in the competition if he recovers from his exertions in time to beat a first round qualifier.
This quarter also contains Feliciano LÃƒÂ³pez, who played superb tennis against Federer in Madrid, and Michael Llodra, who played Nadal in the Madrid quarters. Neither man will find the slower conditions in Rome beneficial to their serve-and-volley games, however.
In the same segment are two more single-handed backhands in the shape of Philipp Kohlschreiber and Mikhail Youzhny. Both have the talent to cause an upset and the Russian in particular will want to compensate for meeting Del Potro in his opening round in Spain.
Nadal’s most likely quarter-final opponent is David Ferrer, who put up a great fight against Djokovic in this week’s quarters and played Nadal in the two previous clay finals. He seems to be getting better with every tournament but has only one win on clay over his compatriot in their 17 meetings, and that was back in 2004.
Matches to watch out for: LÃƒÂ³pez v Llodra, first round, and Kohlschreiber v Youzhny, first round.
Quarter two: Roger Federer
Federer finds himself in the same half of the draw as Nadal for the second consecutive week.
This time, his possible quarter-final opponent is Tomas Berdych, who beat the Swiss twice in big events last year: Wimbledon and Miami. Clay is not the Czech’s favourite surface, however, and it is just possible that he will fall to one of the dangerous unseeded players in his section.
Juan Monaco lost to Berdych this week, but the Rome surface is more likely to favour the Argentine. Also a threat is Sergiy Stakhovsky, who played some good attacking tennis in Madrid, though he is carrying some long matches in his long legs.
As for Federer’s section, he has a tricky first match against either Marcos Baghdatis or, more likely, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who got the better of the in-form No9 Nicolas Almagro in the first round in Madrid. When on song, Tsonga has the beating of anyone, though he has struggled with form since reaching the finals in Rotterdam.
Federer’s potential third round opponent is Richard Gasquet, who has also struggled with consistency and confidence this season. He seems unlikely to get through Federer for the first time since 2005.
Match to watch out for: Baghdatis v Tsonga, first round
Quarter three: Andy Murray
After a shocker of a hard-court run, losing his opening matches in Rotterdam, Indian Wells and Miami, Andy Murray made a strong return in his opening clay event in Monte Carlo, losing to eventual champion Nadal.
Back in Madrid after recuperation of an injured elbow, Murray found himself in a rough draw, facing first Gilles Simon in a three-setter, then falling to this week’s semi-finalist, Bellucci.
He has a difficult road in Rome, too, with Guillermo Garcia-Lopez or Xavier Malisse first -they both played well to reach the third round in Madrid -followed by either Nikolay Davydenko, Alexandr Dolgopolov or Victor Troicki.
Though none of them shone in Madrid, all three have the potential to reach a third-round encounter with Murray, and will worry him if he retreats behind the baseline as he did against Bellucci.
The top segment also carries some threats. Jurgen Melzer was a surprise early faller in Madrid but played well on the slower clay of Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
Florian Mayer, too, has had a good clay run, and then there is the dangerous Simon again who is likely to upset the struggling Andy Roddick in the first round.
Match to watch out for: Melzer v Mayer, second round
Quarter four: Novak Djokovic
The still-unbeaten Serb has been nothing short of brilliant so far this year. He is, however, also showing signs of physical wear and tear: He still carries strapping on his knee and has had some shoulder and ankle concerns this week.
But his will to win and his confidence are undiminished, and his draw -possibly the easiest of the quarters -will give him some respite.
He will first face a qualifier, then either Stan Wawrinka -who has lost in the first round of the last three tournaments, including Madrid -or the declining Thiemo de Bakker, though there are a couple of wild cards who could take those two out.
In the top segment, the biggest seed is Robin Soderling, a finalist at Roland Garros twice, but not enjoying a very consistent period while his coaching set-up changes.
It’s hard to see Fernando Verdasco, in his present wayward form, advancing past Milos Raonic, though it could be a big hitting affair.
The other possible third-rounder is Almagro who will like the Rome surface more than Madrid’s. He has two clay titles this year, and reached the semis in Barcelona.
Match to watch out for: Verdasco v Raonic, first round.
Final: Djokovic v Nadal