The draw for the Internazionali BNL d’Italia at the beautiful Foro Italica in Rome had just placed top seed Rafael Nadal and No6 seed Dominic Thiem into the same quarter—and a potential replay of their quarter-final in Madrid.
Meanwhile, the Spanish faithful were watching their favourite son, the defending champion Nadal, who was on a run of 50 consecutive sets won on clay, being battered into defeat by the stunning baseline shot-making of his younger opponent.
Thiem would win in straight sets in a dazzling display of winners off both wings, 7-5, 6-3, which was all the more impressive coming after their most recent encounter last month in Monte-Carlo, also in the quarter-finals: Nadal won 6-0, 6-2.
But go back exactly a year, and Thiem was about to achieve that same Madrid feat: He beat Nadal, and in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, in Rome—in the quarter-finals.
So while Thiem continued the good fight in Madrid, taking out the in-form No6 seed Kevin Anderson in similarly fine style, Nadal was able to enjoy a little recovery time from an arduous clay swing that notched up 15 matches, 14-1, in the space of 24 days.
And arguably, the conditions in Rome suit Nadal better than Madrid, where the dry altitude make the balls particularly lively. The Italian Open boasts courts much closer to those at Roland Garros—and there are few tennis fans unaware of the Spaniard’s achievements in Paris: He will be trying to add an 11th French Open to his 11 in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona.
Nadal’s record in Rome also speaks volumes: He has never missed the tournament since winning the first of seven titles at his very first attempt in 2005. He made the finals twice more, to stack up a 51-6 tally.
It is, though, worth noting that four of those six losses have come in the last four years, and also worth noting who those losses were against. Last year it was Thiem; in 2016 and 2014 it was Novak Djokovic; in 2015 it was Stan Wawrinka. So it is not just Thiem who has a story to tell in the coming week.
Djokovic may be ranked outside the top 16 come Monday after a second-round loss to Kyle Edmund in Madrid, but his record when it comes to Rome is second only to Nadal.
Djokovic is clearly still working his way back to match-fitness and full confidence since his return in Australia after six months off the tour with a chronic elbow problem. But the former No1 is a four-time champion in Rome from eight finals, 42-7, and has never missed the tournament since reaching the quarters at his first in 2007. He lost out to Nadal on that occasion, but the two men are all square in their six Rome meetings and, taken across the board, Djokovic has won seven of their last eight meetings, including Rome, Monte-Carlo and Roland Garros.
This time, he is drawn in the same half as Nadal, but has a decent draw to the quarters, so given his special relationship with the Italian capital, where he is a big favourite, he could become dangerous at the sharp end of the draw. He will need to be, though: He has runner-up points to defend.
It is impossible to judge whether Wawrinka will have an impact on the draw in Rome: This will be his first appearance since he retired in his opener in Marseille in February to continue rehab on his knee following double surgery last August.
His long absence has taken him out of the seedings, ranked 25, and raises questions about his match-fitness. But he is a dangerous floater in the bottom half of the draw, and if nothing else, he will want to work himself into form ahead of Roland Garros: He is a former champion there, though not in Rome.
No5 seed Juan Martin del Potro has been one of the men to beat this year, won back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells and, following a break after a semi run in Miami, reached the third round in his first clay event in Madrid. The Argentine is 22-5 this year, but has picked up a tough quarter in Rome, possibly beginning with dangerous youngster Borna Coric.
David Goffin has not yet peaked following his eye injury in Rotterdam, but the signs are there. His clay form has shown up before—twice a quarter-finalist in three visits to Rome—but he looked out of sorts against the power game of Edmund in Madrid. Rome should suit him better, though he has picked up another tough draw.
Zverev, seeded No2 for the second Masters in a row, has shown all the form that took him to his first Masters title in Rome last year: He has yet to drop a set in Madrid, and that after reaching the semis in Monte-Carlo and winning in Munich. He is 23-7 on the season, 10-2 on clay, but is also in this tough bottom quarter.
The No1 ranking is, yet again, up for grabs. Nadal had to defend Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid to stay at the top, so conceded the No1 to Roger Federer with his loss to Thiem. However, he can reclaim it with victory in Rome, where he lost in that quarter-final to last year.
Madrid has seen the further blossoming of teenage Canadian Denis Shapovalov, into his second Masters semi in only his first season on clay. His progress has been impressive: Less than a year ago, he was ranked 195, and will break the top 30 next week—considerably higher should he beat Zverev in Madrid. He will, however, be sorely tested in Rome, beginning with Tomas Berdych and then possibly Nadal in the third round.
Zverev has two Masters titles to his name already, and made the final in Miami, too. But if he fails to win Madrid, the tournament will crown the sixth new Masters champion in a year, and in Rome, there is the possibility of a very unusual occurrence: having a different name on each of the nine Masters trophies at the same time.
56-men, 16 seeds, top eight with Round 1 byes
Oldest: Lopez (36) Youngest: Shapovalov (19)
Wild cards: Lorenzo Sonego, Marco Cecchinato, Andreas Seppi, Matteo Berrettini
Who is missing in Madrid?
Potential seeded absentees are: Federer, Roberto Bautista Agut
Other main-draw absentees, in ranking order: Hyeon Chung, Nick Kyrgios, Milos Raonic, Filip Krajinovic, Andrey Rublev, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Andy Murray
Previous champions in draw: Nadal (7), Djokovic (4), Zverev (1)
Clay titlists this year in draw: Nadal (Monte-Carlo and Barcelona), Thiem (Buenos Aires plus Madrid final tbd), Schwartzman (Rio), Fabio Fognini (Sao Paulo), Pablo Andujar (Marrakech), Zverev (Munich plus Madrid SF tbd)
[NB Shapovalov also in SF in Madrid]
Potential quarter-finals, top half:
Nadal vs Thiem: Other seeds, Berdych and Sam Querrey
Also here: Shapovalov, Gael Monfils, Fognini
Grigor Dimitrov vs John Isner: Other seeds, Jack Sock and Djokovic
Also here: Kei Nishikori, Karen Khachanov, David Ferrer, Philipp Kohlschreiber
Potential quarter-finals, bottom half:
Anderson vs Marin Cilic: Other seeds, Pablo Carreno Busta and Diego Schwartzman
Also here: Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet
Del Potro vs Zverev: Other seeds, Goffin and Lucas Pouille
Also here: Coric, Pablo Cuevas, Edmund, Seppi
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