• Roger Federer continues clay preparations ahead of first French Open since 2015
• Eight-time champ Rafael Nadal, four-time winner Novak Djokovic, and 2017 champ Alexander Zverev all in draw
• Simona Halep again bids to dethrone No1 Naomi Osaka
• 17 of top 20 men in Masters draw, 19 of top 20 women compete in Premier draw
Yet the Foro Italico is one of the players’ favourite stops on the tour. The courts and conditions in the Eternal City provide the perfect transition to Paris after the dusty altitude of Madrid. And of course, there is the prestige of one of tennis’s biggest titles on the line, with commensurate earnings and ranking points. Stir in an ambience unlike anywhere else—lively, passionate, yet respectful of the tennis itself—and picture-postcard looks—white marble, blue skies, and two of the most beautiful tennis arenas in this sport—and Rome is a hot spot for tennis fans.
No wonder both the men’s and women’s draws are replete with the cream of players, including two who are making their return after several years’ absence.
Serena Williams, currently ranked 11, will play Rome for the first time since winning the title in 2016. It is only her fourth tournament of the year, and her first since being forced to withdraw from Miami with a knee injury.
Roger Federer, world No3, also confirmed his participation back where his clay hiatus began following knee surgery and then back problems in 2016.
Unlike Williams, the Swiss ventured onto the very different clay of Madrid this week, and put in some good miles to fall match-point short of the semi-finals. But some more match-play to prepare for his first Roland Garros since 2015 affirms both fitness and confidence.
Both the 37-year-old stars have enjoyed success in Rome, though it remains, with Monte-Carlo, a Masters that Federer has yet to win despite reaching four finals and two further semis over a span of 17 years: The ‘Rafa’ effect, of course.
Rafael Nadal has left little space for challengers on European clay with 11 titles in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, four on the clay of Madrid, and eight at the Foro Italico. Stir into that formidable clay mix the current No1, Novak Djokovic—one of a rare breed that has been able to beat Nadal on the clay of all three Masters and Roland Garros—and the route to victory for everyone else has been near impenetrable.
For Williams, however, Rome has brought big success: four titles, four more semis, a 43-8 record. And while she has not played for some time, she won the title in three of her last four visits, with that intervening exit coming courtesy of her withdrawal with an elbow injury. Indeed only one woman in this year’s draw has beaten Williams in Rome—other than by withdrawal—and that is her sister, Venus, back in 1998, in their only Rome meeting. Serena went on to beat Venus at the French Open four years later.
Many pundits, though, will be looking beyond Federer and Williams for Rome’s champions.
On the men’s side, Rome’s most prolific champion Nadal may have failed to reach his dozen titles in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, but he reached the semis in Madrid, and back on the clay most resembling Roland Garros, he remains the man to beat.
Djokovic, who heads the ranks by a country mile, and has his eye set on Roland Garros and thus all four Majors at the same time, is also on a rising trajectory after a lean period following his Australian title run. He plays the final in Madrid, and will relish Rome’s courts even more
Looking elsewhere, Dominic Thiem and Fabio Fognini beat Nadal on their way to the Barcelona and Monte-Carlo titles respectively: Thiem also beat Federer in Indian Wells and Madrid.
Alexander Zverev is a former Rome and Madrid champion, while the youngest player in the top 10, Stefanos Tsitsipas, has won three titles from six finals in the last year, including Estoril last month.
With his defeat of Nadal to reach the Madrid final, the young Greek now has wins over all five top-ranked men, and is closing in a top-five place himself. This time last year, he was ranked 43, but he has already stacked up the most match-wins this season, 27.
As for the women’s draw, Simona Halep fell just short of reclaiming the No1 ranking with her runner-up finish in Madrid, but can make the charge again in Rome, where she has been runner-up for the last two years.
The woman to beat her in 2017 and 2018, Elina Svitolina, has this year been struggling with knee problems, and to complicate matters further for the Ukrainian defending champion, Svitolina could face the unseeded Victoria Azarenka in her opening match.
One of the favourites must now be Kiki Bertens, who looked majestic in her run to the Madrid title, and up to No4 in the ranks. She beat Jelena Ostapenko, Anastasija Sevastova, Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens and Halep—that is four Major champions—without dropping a set.
Bertens is one of only two women to win more than one title this year, and the other, Kvitova, is also a contender in Rome, where she too returns for the first time since in three years. Her form has been outstanding in 2019, 26-7 thus far, with titles in Stuttgart and Sydney, finals at the Australian Open and Dubai. And she has, it so happens, avoided Halep, Williams, world No1 Naomi Osaka, and Bertens in her half.
Clay champions this season in Rome draw
Benoit Paire (Marrakech) [currently qualifying in Rome]
Marco Cecchinato (Buenos Aires)
Laslo Djere (Rio)
Guido Pella (Sao Paulo)
Matteo Berrettini (Budapest)
Djokovic or Tsitsipas (Madrid)
Top-30 players missing in Madrid
No6 Kevin Anderson, No10 John Isner, No16 Milos Raonic,
Previous champions in draw: Nadal (8 and defending), Djokovic (4), Zverev (1)
Additional finalists: Nadal (2), Djokovic (4), Zverev (1), Federer (4), Stan Wawrinka (1)
Djokovic vs del Potro
Other seeds: Cecchinato, Daniil Medvedev
Also here: Denis Shapovalov, Alex de Minaur, David Goffin, Wawrinka
Other seeds: Gael Monfils, Marin Cilic
Also here: Grigor Dimitrov, Jan-Lennard Struff, Pella, Diego Schwartzman
Federer vs Tsitsipas
Other seeds: Fognini, Borna Coric
Also here: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Frances Tiafoe
Nadal vs Thiem
Other seeds: Karen Khachanov, Nikoloz Basilashvili
Also here: Richard Gasquet, Djere, Kyle Edmund, Roberto Bautista Agut
Clay champions this season in Rome draw
Madison Keys (Charleston)
Polona Hercog (Lugano)
Petra Kvitova (Stuttgart)
Maria Sakkari (Rabat) [currently qualifying in Rome]
Kiki Bertens (Madrid)
Main-draw players missing in Rome draw
No4 Angelique Kerber, No23 Bianca Andreescu, No24 Donna Vekic, No28 Maria Sharapova, No34 Camila Giorgi, No36 Petra Martic
Previous champions in draw: Svitolina (2 and defending), Serena Williams (4), Venus Williams (1)
Additional finalists: Halep (2), Madison Keys (1), Carla Suarez Navarro (1), Sara Errani (1), Victoria Azarenka (1), Venus Williams (1)
Osaka vs Bertens
Other seeds: Julia Georges, Aryna Sabalenka
Also here: Dominika Cibulkova, Ostapenko, Suarez Navarro
Halep vs Stephens
Other seeds: Serena Williams, Qiang Wang
Also here: Venus Williams, Johanna Konta
Svitolina vs Karolina Pliskova
Other seeds: Caroline Wozniacki, Keys
Also here: Azarenka, Garbine Muguruza
Kvitova vs Ashleigh Barty
Other seeds: Sevastova, Anett Kontaveit
Also here: Caroline Garcia, Belinda Bencic
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge