Rome Masters: Djokovic and Murray hot-foot it from Madrid for winning starts
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray ease to comfortable victories in Rome on Wednesday afternoon
The biggest spoils when it comes to Masters titles have been shared by a very select band of men. Indeed since the first jewels in the ATP crown were played in 1970, three players have come to top the rankings by some distance.
Top of the pile, and the dominant player of the last two years, is Novak Djokovic, and only last week in Madrid, he took the lead in Masters titles, with 29.
Running him a close second with 28 is Rafael Nadal, winner in Monte-Carlo.
Third in line, with 24, is Roger Federer, though his most recent came in Cincinnati last summer, as injury and illness prevented him competing in any Masters this year except Monte-Carlo.
Then there is Andy Murray, ranked 10th in the Masters table and the only other active player in the all-time top 25. The Madrid and Montreal titles during 2015 took him to 11 Masters titles.
There is, then, a reason why world No1 Djokovic, No2 Federer, No3 Murray and No5 Nadal have been dubbed ‘the big four’.
Even more remarkable is that those same four continue to vie for Masters titles, and while the likes of Stan Wawrinka and David Ferrer have also picked up the odd Masters crown, these have, in truth, been scraps from the top table.
Look at it this way. The same quartet has won 52 of the last 56 Masters, and since the start of 2013, at least one of them has been in the final of the last 31.
But when it comes to Rome, this select band is even more exclusive: Only two among the 56 hopefuls in this year’s draw has ever won at the Foro Italico: Nadal seven times—the first more than a decade ago—and defending and four-time champion Djokovic.
As luck would have it, these two men, along with four-time finalist Federer, fell into the same half, precluding the chance of a title shoot-out. A chance, then, for another name to make a dent in the Rome order—and the clay form of Murray, who leads the attack from the other end of the draw, suggests he has championship ambitions.
First he made the semis of Monte-Carlo, falling to Nadal in three sets, then he beat Nadal in the Madrid semis before losing to Djokovic in the final.
Compared with his big rivals, Murray has also picked up a manageable draw, not only avoiding the previous champions but losing one of the top seeds in his half to injury: No7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
First things first, however, and that was qualifier Mikhail Kukushkin, who put out young rising star Borna Coric.
With such a high quality and high-profile line-up of matches on this packed Wednesday, Murray found himself on Grandstand court on a day of oppressive heat and humidity that forecast rain. It was also his first match following a quick turn-around from the cool and high-altitude environment of Madrid.
After a tough opening couple of games that lasted almost a quarter of an hour, Murray finally got the upper hand in the first set to break and hold for 6-3.
The Briton took command in the second set rather sooner, breaking Kukushkin in the fifth game, and then again to take the set, 6-3, in under an hour and a half.
Murray afterwards admitted that the transition to Rome had made life difficult:
“It’s a big change in the conditions, but I did some things well today… It was a good win against a guy who has probably been here a week, played three matches in these conditions and beaten some good players, as well. [But] I served very well today. That won me a lot of free points.”
Murray hit seven aces and got close to 80 percent of his first serves on target. And he was right to point out that he will need to play better against his next opponent, though it will be the unseeded Jeremy Chardy rather than No15 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who the Frenchman beat, 7-6, 6-4.
At the other end of the draw, the man who has already notched up five titles this year and a tally of 33 wins to just two losses, also opened against a qualifier. Djokovic, who will shortly reach his 200th week at No1 and his 100th consecutive week at the top, played soon-to-be 36 Stephane Robert, and was pushed much harder than he and many on Centre Court anticipated.
Indeed it was the Serb who faced the first break point in the third game, but he managed to avoid a tie-break by breaking the Frenchman for the first set, 7-5.
In the second set, too, Robert made the first charge, this time breaking for 2-1, but Djokovic broke back to level at 4-4 and, just as before, avoided the tie-break with a break for 7-5.
Like Murray, Djokovic talked of the tough conditions after arriving from Madrid late Monday:
“The conditions were very tough. The player that I played against was very unpredictable with his shots… He’s an experienced player. He’s been around for so many years, and you could sense that today. Plus he hit some shots that were quite incredible. And why not? He had nothing to lose.”
Djokovic will also avoid a dangerous seed in his segment of the draw: Gael Monfils lost his opener to Thomaz Bellucci, who came through his second round against Nicolas Mahut, 6-3, 6-4, to set a Djokovic contest.
In the other quarter of Djokovic’s half, No11 seed Richard Gasquet knocked out Andreas Seppi, 6-3, 6-4, to set up a meeting against sixth seed Kei Nishikori. Also here, there was a good win for Nick Kyrgios, who beat No10 seed Milos Raonic, 7-6, 6-3, for the chance to play Nadal.
First, though, the clay-court king had to take on Philipp Kohlschreiber in clammy conditions and under the lights of Centre Court.