Rome Masters: Top three seeds get off to winning starts
Djokovic and Federer cruised through their opening ties as Nadal almost came unstuck against a qualifier
It was all going to plan on the day that the top three men played in Rome for the first time.
The temperature was in the high 20s, the crowd was buzzing, the atmosphere was electric and Centre Court, a fiery orange battleground, was ready.
The afternoon schedule boasted Novak Djokovic followed by Rafael Nadal, and both were playing qualifiers. The script said they would be done and dusted in no time.
And sure enough, Djokovic dismissed Lukasz Kubot in just over the hour. Indeed the Pole did not even get on the scoreboard until nine games in. He avoided the ignominy of a double bagel, just -6-0, 6-3 -while Djokovic notched up match 33 in his unbroken season.
To top it off, he wowed the crowd by holding his on-court interview in Italian.
The second contest was altogether different and had the packed crowd on its feet. The reason was simple: World No148, Paolo Lorenzi, a qualifier, was Italian.
He also pulled Nadal back from 2-4 down in the first set to take the current Rome champion to a tiebreaker. Again, Nadal gained the advantage only to see Lorenzi take the next four points and the set.
From that moment, the story unfolding on Centre Court may have been audible in Vatican City because the arena filled with chants of “Paulo” and roars of approval at every step he made.
Nadal opened the second set with a look almost of disgust etched on his face: He wasn’t playing his best, but he didn’t expect to be a set down.
He broke Lorenzi’s first service game but the Italian fought back with a brave combination of net attacks and drop shots to hold his next serve. His reward came quickly, and he broke Nadal in the following game.
He also had Nadal grounded -covered in red dust -in a vain attempt by the Spaniard to reach a wrong-footing forehand. The match was level again, 4-4.
As if to crank up the tension, this was the moment that royalty came to call. Nicola Pietrangeli took up his place in the sponsors’ section with no less a figure than Ken Rosewall, winner of a dozen Grand Slams, including two French Opens.
Whether Nadal was aware of the honour was unclear, but he now played as though he had something to prove and stepped into the baseline to hurl his lasso forehand at both corners for another break. He was still taken to deuce on his serve but held to take the set, 6-4.
After more than two hours, Lorenzi was a spent force and Nadal ran away with the third set, 6-0. The Italians were almost as relieved as if their man had stayed the course. Everyone wants to see more of Nadal, and they will next have the chance to do so when he faces compatriot Feliciano Lopez, a man Nadal has always beaten on clay.
However, Lopez is playing some great tennis at the moment. He took Federer to the brink in three tiebreaks in Madrid, and reached the final in Belgrade where he also took Djokovic to a tiebreak in the opening set.
His match against Philipp Kohlschreiber on Pietrangeli was a delight as two serve-and-volley exponents blended muscular baseline craft with fluid net-attacking skills.
With the shadows lengthening from orange to russet brown, the match also lengthened to one set apiece. The placid facade of the German gave the passionate Spaniard as good as he got, picking off smashes, running down drop shots and slicing his one-handed backhand within inches of the net tape.
As the match reached its climax in this hushed basin of a court, the Foro Italico erupted to the south -with screams and chants as Nadal prepared to leave the players’ area -and to the north -where Federer took to the practice courts.
With two hours on the clock, it was still all square: one set all, three games all. Lopez was almost broken in the seventh game but fought a hold and the momentum lifted him to a scintillating eighth game of all-court panache.
He broke the German and produced his biggest serving -which is very big indeed -to take the match, 6-4 3-6 6-3. The match had turned on the odd winner at the crucial moment: 95 points to 90. It also produced possibly the most consistently high quality tennis of the day.
Beyond Lopez, however, Nadal’s draw has opened up nicely. Following the withdrawal of David Ferrer due to illness, the highest remaining seed in his quarter is Mardy Fish, who has already battled through two long three-setters and now faces a rested Marin Cilic.
The tall Croatian first saw Ivo Karlovic retire with back injury and then faced lucky loser Carlos Berlocq, who filled the Ferrer vacuum.
Andy Murray, too, has benefitted from the loss by every seed in this quarter: Jurgen Melzer retired from his first match; Andy Roddick lost in the first round; and now Viktor Troicki has gone out to another flourishing Italian, Potitio Starace -the man Murray plays next. Meanwhile the Djokovic and Federer quarters have stayed almost intact.
The Swiss, the last of the big guns in action in the night session, made an impressive start against the potential trip-wire posed by the world No18, Jo-Wilfried Tsgona -not the easiest way to open a Masters account.
But it was a relatively routine win, give or take a couple of break point chances for the Frenchman, that takes Federer to another tricky match against yet another single-handed wizard, Richard Gasquet.
Beyond that, Federer has the dangerous Tomas Berdych, who should have no problem with lucky loser, Jarrko Nieminen who already has two long matches in his legs.
So it has become a draw of unequal fortunes. Nadal and Murray fought to get through their openers but now have an easier ride. Federer and Djokovic have sailed to Round Three but now face their biggest challengers.
It means that another day in the Roman sun could change everything.