Rome Masters 2018: Nadal and Djokovic on collision course, as unseeded Edmund, Shapovalov & Nishikori roll on
British number one Kyle Edmund joins Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the third round in Rome
The draw for the Rome Masters this week certainly had a familiar ring about it as the best men in tennis headed to the Foro Italico from the Caja Magica in Madrid.
There in the top quarter were the same two seeds who had drawn such crowds, such noise and such excitement as the Spanish faithful cheered on their favourite son, Rafael Nadal. But the world No1 lost to Dominic Thiem, just as he had in Rome last year. Were the two destined to contest the quarter-final of one of the most prestigious clay Masters in the calendar again?
The prospect carried extra weight because Nadal’s loss in Madrid meant he failed to defend the title, having successfully defended in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona. And that conceded the No1 ranking to the absent Roger Federer. Come Rome, Nadal could finally gain ranking points because of his loss to Thiem last year—but he had to win the title to regain the No1 spot.
How quickly the scene can change, though.
No surprise that Nadal won his opener, the Round 2 contest against the 31-ranked Damir Dzumhur, a man who had reached the quarters of two 250 events this season, a modest 11-14 record, and who had won only five games in their meeting at the Australian Open at the start of the year.
Nadal, the seven-time Rome champion, was 18-2 for the year, 14-1 on clay, and a stunning 51-6 in Rome, and was in his familiar irrepressible, strutting form in conceding only one game to the hapless Dsumhur, 6-1, 6-0, in 61 minutes.
Had the seedings gone to order, he would next have played Tomas Berdych, but the rise and rise of the brilliant teenage Canadian, Denis Shapovalov, continued with yet another big win after his semi-final finish in Madrid. He bettered Berdych in a thriller, 7-6(5) in the third set, and then had to dig deep against Robin Haase in another three-setter, finally coming through after two and a half hours, 7-6(3), 6-7(5), 6-3. After such exertions, it may prove to be a rather shorter affair against Nadal.
So Nadal’s first seed was scheduled to be Thiem in the quarters—except that the Austrian fell foul of the charismatic Fabio Fognini, who drew on the vocal home support on the Foro’s Centre Court to beat him, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3, after two hours five minutes of sizzling tennis full of variety, craft and touch.
And the 21-ranked Italian star will now play Peter Gojowczyk, ranked 53, who put out No12 seed Sam Querrey.
The afternoon brought a cracking contest between the next highest seed in this half, No3 Grigor Dimitrov, who had the misfortune to draw former top-10 player Kei Nishikori, for his first match. The Japanese man, whose ranking has suffered so often from injury problems, has begun to show the form that has taken him to a Major final and to four Masters finals—including Monte-Carlo last month. He got the better of Dimitrov after almost three hours of compelling tennis, 6-7(4), 7-5, 6-4.
And that set a third-round match against another non-seed, Philipp Kohlschreiber, back inside the top 30 at the age of 34 after some big-name wins through the clay swing, the likes of Roberto Bautista Agut, twice, and Rome’s No13 seed, Jack Sock.
So now Nadal could look through his quarter of the draw and find no other seeds. More intriguing still, he could scan down the entire top half of the draw and find only one remaining seed. What makes it intriguing is that the one seed is Novak Djokovic, still outside the top eight who enjoyed a first-round bye in Rome but starting produce some of the tennis that made him such a feared opponent for so long.
But Rome has always been a warm and welcoming place for Djokovic, for the tennis he has played here and the support he has always enjoyed from the Roman fans. He has responded in kind, speaking to them in Italian after his many wins—and he is a four-time champion at the Foro Italico, with a 42-7 record. He is a four-times runner-up too, including last year, and has twice beaten Nadal in finals in Rome.
However, after his return this year at the Australian Open following more than six months away with elbow injury, he was forced to undergo minor surgery, and made three first-round exits in his five subsequent tournaments.
He came through a difficult opener in Madrid last week against Nishikori, but the Rome conditions suit him better, and that was demonstrated in two quick wins. First he beat Alexandr Dolgopolov—who managed to win just four games—and then Nikoloz Basilashvili, though in an unusual setting for one of Rome’s biggest stars.
The two men played on the iconic Court Pietrangeli, the Foro’s third court, though Djokovic was not delayed for too long. He advanced after only 77 minutes, 6-4, 6-3, but he loved every minute:
“I thought the atmosphere was unique, phenomenal. It’s one of the most beautiful tennis courts in the world… And I think it’s so nice to play in front of the people that also don’t have to buy ticket for Centre Court.”
Djokovic next plays Albert Ramos-Vinolas, who put out the No8 seed John Isner. One more victory for the Serb, and he will reach his first quarter-final of the season, and as Djokovic has yet to lose a set in five previous meetings with the 41-ranked Spaniard, that should certainly will boost his confidence.
So in the event, it is not a repeat of the Nadal-Thiem clash that is whetting the appetite in Rome: It is the prospect of another Nadal-Djokovic showdown, their 51st, and their first in over a year.
The bottom half of the draw has seen some of the big guns make their presence felt, while there has also been room for a few unseeded men to score big.
No5 seed Juan Martin del Potro was tested early by the young teenage star Stefanos Tsitsipas, but pulled back a 4-2 deficit in the first set to grab the initiative with his signature big-hitting tennis—though both men threw in some fine drop-shot plays through some high-quality exchanges. Del Potro levelled, and then broke again to take the first set, 7-5.
In the second set, it was del Potro who got the early break, 3-1, and that was all he needed: An hour and three-quarters, and he was into the third round, 6-3.
There he will play David Goffin, in a quarter that also saw the solid progress of one of the newest members of the top 20, Briton Kyle Edmund, who added to his resume of big-name wins this year with the No16 seed Lucas Pouille, 6-2, 7-6(3).
Edmund, who reached the Australian Open semis at the start of the year via Kevin Anderson and Dimitrov, and picked off Djokovic and Goffin in Madrid, will now have a shot at the defending Rome champion and the winner in Madrid last week, No2 seed Alexander Zverev.
The remarkable German, who turned 21 just last month, won Madrid without being broken once—the first to do so in a Masters since records began in 1991.
Benoit Paire put out No14 seed Diego Schwartzman and will next play No4 seed Marin Cilic, and also in this quarter, No10 seed Pablo Carreno Busta beat Steve Johnson to set a third-round match against Aljaz Bedene, who went through when Anderson was forced to retire after one set.