• Williams sisters, both former champions, win openers to set second-round showdown
• Johanna Konta and Cameron Norrie win, but Kyle Edmund out
At the top, No1 Novak Djokovic turns 32 in little over a week’s time; and lined up to meet Djokovic in the quarters, No7 seed Juan Martin del Potro, is 31 come September.
Could any of the three young players upset the applecart and make it to Round 3 showdowns with those illustrious seeds?
First to try his luck was a young man already proven to be a formidable opponent for anyone: Denis Shapovalov, with his explosive, expressive leftie tennis, has made the semis of three Masters, in Montreal, Madrid and Miami, and counts wins over the likes of del Potro, Rafael Nadal, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Marin Cilic, and Fabio Fognini along the way. He reached a career-high No20 in April, though is now down at 22 after a lean month on the clay—three opening losses.
But he returned with a bang to the delight of a crowd that packed out the beautiful Pietrangeli arena at the Foro Italico, where he beat Pablo Carreno Busta, 6-3, 7-6(5).
He converted his only break point from four in the first set, but that scenario was about to get worse in the second set, with another eight break chances—not one cashed in.
On the plus side, Shapovalov did not offer the Spaniard any openings against his serve, and although Carreno Busta saved a 0-40 situation to lead 5-4, the Canadian continued to serve well, and a love hold took it to a tie-break. He finished the match with 26 winners, but the last point showed that he is no one-trick pony—a diving retrieval to get one more ball just over the net to draw a final error.
It had taken Shapovalov an hour and 35 minutes, and was a hugely popular result. However, it earned him the dubious prize of a second-round meeting the four-time champion Djokovic, fresh from winning the Masters in Madrid. They have met once before, in Australia at the start of the year, and the Canadian nabbed a set, but the world No1 fended off the challenge in four on his way to the title.
Could fellow 20-year-old Alex de Minaur also advance in this same small segment? Well, he had the misfortune to face home favourite Marco Cecchinato, seeded No16, and playing in the lion’s den of Centre Court.
The Italian had won all three of his titles on clay, including one this February in Buenos Aires without dropping a set. De Minaur, who defeated Cecchinato in their only previous match last year at Wimbledon, was searching for his first win on clay this season after three first-round losses ahead of Rome.
And it was a valiant effort from the slightly built Australian. He won the first set, 4-6, but went on to lose the next two set, 6-3, 6-1, after two and a quarter hours. But Cecchinato will have his work cut out again in the next round, where he faces Philipp Kohlschrieber, who beat Gilles Simon on opening Sunday.
The third 20-year-old in this quarter was Norwegian Casper Ruud, who hit a career high No68 last month after reaching his first final on the clay of Houston.
But his ranking when it comes to Masters tournaments means a qualifying route into the main draw, and he did just that, to set a first-round meeting with fellow qualifier, Briton Daniel Evans.
They played at the far end of the Foro Italico, in the curved hemisphere so loved of fans with ground passes, and the quality and variety of the tennis ensured plenty of vocal support as the intriguing match unfolded.
A long fifth game, with multiple deuces and break chances, eventually went to Evans: He led 3-2 after almost 40 minutes. Bearing in mind that both Evans and Ruud were now playing for the third consecutive day, this would become a test of focus and physical fitness.
And Ruud managed to break back, and then break again to serve out the set after 70 minutes, 7-5.
Evans regrouped quickly after the disappointment of that turn-around. He broke immediately in the second set, and again for 3-0. He upped his naturally attacking game play, pulled off drop shots and passes, and defended well from behind the baseline with his flexible sliced single-handed backhand.
However, it was another net attack, finished by a high backhand winner, that got yet another break 5-0. He completed the rout after saving four break points, with a hold, 6-0, in less than half the time it had taken to complete the first set.
The third brought another swift reversal. A love hold by Ruud broke the Evans stranglehold, although it was the Briton who again got the first break with more of his crowd-pleasing net-attacking tennis. But the lead was short-lived, as Ruud broke back immediately and then again for a 5-3 lead, and the 20-year-old Norwegian served out the match to love, 6-3.
So Evans’ wait for a main-draw clay win at the elite level must wait: He has never got beyond the first round at the three Masters or the French Open. But his strength lies elsewhere, and his improved focus and fitness may see inroads come the grass swing, while his runner-up finish in Delray Beach, beating Frances Tiafoe and John Isner, proves his ability on hard courts, too.
For now, Ruud awaits the winner between Nick Kyrgios and Daniil Medvedev, but in this top-notch segment, there are also David Goffin, Stan Wawrinka and, of course, del Potro.
Also among the younger generation to advance were 22-year-old No11 seed Karen Khachanov who beat Lorenzo Sonega, in another arduous battle, 6-3, 6-7(1), 6-3 after two hours 25 minutes. It was his first win at the Foro Italico after losing on his debut last year in a final-set tie-break. The young Russian will next face Roberto Bautista Agut, who beat Andreas Seppi on Sunday.
Fellow 22-year-old Borna Coric, seeded 13, was part of another three-setter against the starry teenager, Felix Auger-Aliassime, who broke the top 30 this week after a breakthrough run to the semis of the Miami Masters. Coric scored his first victory in Rome, 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-4, after two and a half hours, to set a match against Briton Cameron Norrie, who came through yet another three-setter against John Millman, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
• Briton Johanna Konta will play No7 seed Sloane Stephens in the second round, after beating Alison Riske, 6-4 6-1.
• However, Kyle Edmund suffered his fourth straight first-round loss, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, to Fernando Verdasco. The Spaniard will now play No5 seed Dominic Thiem.
• Serena Williams, playing for the first time in Rome since winning in 2016, is also through to the second round after beating Rebecca Peterson, 6-4, 6-2. She will face her sister Venus, also a former champion, after the 38-year-old American put in a remarkable fight of over three hours to beat Elise Mertens, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(4).
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge