Rome Masters: Schiavone and Federer steal the limelight
In contrast with Madrid's opening days, Rome -for the seeds and crowds -has gone beautifully to plan
The first round is complete at the hot and burnished Foro Italica in Rome and just two seeds have fallen – neither of them were a surprise.
Andy Roddick’s troubles were set to continue from the moment the draw was made: His first opponent was Gilles Simon.
The Frenchman troubles the best whenever and wherever they play, and No12 seed Roddick was out in the blink of an eye, 6-3 6-3, just as he had been in Madrid last week.
The other seed, No13 Mikhail Youzhny, also went down to a player who can turn on the style at the drop of a hat, and he happened to do so against the Russian: Philipp Kohlschreiber. Youzhny, much like Roddick, is going through the doldrums. This was his fifth defeat in his past six matches, and it was a straight-sets affair.
But those aside, together with the withdrawal of No10 Gael Monfils with illness before the tournament got under way, it’s been sunshine all the way.
Andy Murray’s progress, in a three-set battle with Xavier Malisse, had the British on their edge of their seats again, but he now has a day’s rest before he is asked his next question.
He will almost certainly hit the practice courts to fine-tune his wayward serving which averaged just 51 percent across the match and a dire 41 percent in the lost second set.
Another top seed, No5 Robin Soderling, was also tested by former world No7, Fernando Verdasco, who has slid in the rankings this year to a current No17.
But in a topsy-turvy match, he showed the Swede some of the playing power that took him to such a high level.
Verdasco led 6-2, 5-4 and had a 40-0 lead on his serve before his game collapsed in a flood of unforced errors.
Soderling took the set 7-5 and then ran ahead 3-0 in the third only for Verdasco -although coping with something in his eye -fought back to level at 3-3.
But the grit of the Swede outstayed the fire of the Spaniard and, having faced down three match points, it was Soderling’s victory, 6-4 in the third.
So in the brief hiatus ahead of the big guns opening their accounts in Round Two -and the top three all play their first matches on a single action-packed day -the focus turned to the characters. And it was one man and one woman in particular who drew the crowds like bees to a honeypot.
Home heroine, Francesca Schiavone, took to the Centre Court in a torrent of cheers and singing and applause.
Since winning the French Open last year, the petite, passionate Schiavone -higher in the rankings than at any time in her 31 years -was not playing at her best, but no-one cared a jot.
The highest ranked Italian player beat American Christina McHale, 6-3 6-1, in a blur of apricot vest and terracotta muscle as her opponent became progressively overawed by the occasion.
The unique quality of the Italian crowd, however, is an overflowing passion tempered by fairness. Amid roars of approval for the characteristic Schiavone single-handed backhand volley came a chorus of hushes to bottle up their enthusiasm until the end of the point.
The match began, in a strange sense of timing immediately before Schiavone’s opening foray, with a presentation ceremony.
It happened last year -on that occasion on the Pietrangeli court -and was again shrouded in mystery for every non-Italian speaking spectator. What was the award and who was making it?
The answer to the latter was the great Italian Nicky Pietrangeli himself. The answer to the former -passed like Chinese whispers from Italian to English speakers -was something along the lines of the fans’ “most graceful and elegant player of the year”.
On this occasion, they had chosen Schiavone. Last year, it was the only player to compete with her for the fans’ attention in the Foro Italico on opening Tuesday: Roger Federer.
His arrival is heralded from afar by the cheers and chants of crowds, by the shouted alerts from fan to fan and by the sight of small children hurtling to the source of the hubbub.
Sure enough, Federer had appeared on the practice court beyond Court 6. Ranks of bodies filled every available viewing spot, including the stone bleachers raked alongside the women’s doubles match already under way on Court 6.
For the four women attempting to focus on the job in hand, it became a nightmare. Amid chants of “bellissimo” at Federer’s every move there were cheers of approval for a decent practice volley or a slotted down-the-line backhand.
Federer could do little but look slightly embarrassed. He found time to watch a few rallies in his hapless neighbours’ match, had his photo taken with a couple of star-struck officials and eventually, after around 30 minutes of chaos, left the court with a quick wave.
Whether he checked which of the pairs had won that second-round doubles match -it was Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova -who knows.
He will know, if he ever doubted it, that his star-appeal is as great this year as when he won that award on Pietrangeli 12 months ago.