Italian Open, Rome 2021: Williams returns, Barty builds, Djokovic and Nadal compete for dominance

Some of the key storylines in the last big clay test before French Open

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Corinne Dubreuil for Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters)

The Internazionali BNL d’Italia is one of the most popular tournaments in the tennis calendar, and one look at the Foro Italico explains why.

This is a glorious and glamorous venue, brimming with history and culture, and boasting two of the best clay courts for spectators in the world: the sunken Pietrangeli preserves its marble tiers and famous statuary, while the new Court Centrale has all the qualities of the colosseum, with steep rakes curving round the court’s rectangle to provide perfect aural and visual qualities.

That both the men and women now dovetail in the same week for their respective 1000 draws gives depth, breadth and variety, though a little of Rome’s usual vibrancy has, of course, been dampened this year by limited, socially distanced access.

No matter: the cream of tennis is here, fewer than eight months after the last Italian Open played out in the delayed pandemic schedule of 2020.

On the men’s side, only No8 Roger Federer—still preparing for a return to competition after last year’s knee surgeries—and the new No16, Madrid semi-finalist Casper Ruud are missing from the potential 16 seeds.

In the women’s draw, former champion Serena Williams returns to court for the first time since the Australian Open, though No6 Bianca Andreescu’s participation in the clay swing has been delayed by Italian regulations following a positive Covid test before Madrid.

Injured Victoria Azarenka and Kiki Bertens, are also missing but, assuming the seeds keep their places, there are some mouth-watering quarter-finals on the horizon, and some notable showdowns even earlier in the draw.

Try these in the women’s draw:

· No2 Naomi Osaka vs No8 Williams in the quarters, with four-time champion Williams competing for the first time since her Australian Open semi loss to Osaka.

· A rematch of the Stuttgart and Madrid finals and Miami quarter-final between No1 Ashleigh Barty and No4 Aryna Sabalenka, also in the quarters. All three matches went to three sets, with Sabalenka getting the win in Madrid.

· A possible rematch of last year’s Roland Garros final in the third round, between No4 seed Sofia Kenin and the ultimate champion, No15 seed Iga Swiatek.

· No3 seed and defending champion Simona Halep has a thorny run via possibly Angelique Kerber, then 2019 runner-up Johanna Konta or 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, and either Karolina Pliskova or Petra Kvitova in the quarters.

· No12 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, returning from a thigh injury, has Madrid semi-finalist, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, in her opener, then No5 seed and former Rome champion Elina Svitolina in the third—all before Swiatek/Kenin in the quarters.

And there are these in the men’s draw:

· Nine-time champion Nadal opens against teenage star Jannik Sinner, who has 20 wins this year with a final run in Miami, semis in Barcelona and the title in the Great Ocean Road Open.

· Madrid champion Alexander Zverev beat Nadal in the quarters there, and could meet him again in the Rome quarters.

· No3 seed Daniil Medvedev plays Dubai champion and Australian semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev in his first match, and possibly young Italian star Lorenzo Musetti in his second.

· No5 Stefanos Tsitsipas won his first Masters in Monte-Carlo and made the final in Barcelona, making 10-2 on clay so far, and could face Novak Djokovic in the quarters for the first time since their five-set semi-final at the 2020 Roland Garros.

· No7 Andrey Rublev is 27-7 this season, and could play No4 Dominic Thiem in the quarters, having beaten the Austrian in their last three matches.

Who and what else to watch

· Simona Halep returns as defending champion and two-time finalist, in 2017 and 2018, but can she win her first title since winning in Rome last autumn?

· What form will four-time champion Williams find in just her third tournament of the season, following semi runs at Yarra Valley Classic and the Australian Open?

· Osaka thrives on the big stage, but since winning the last two Majors, she has won only four matches. She has also won only three matches in Rome in three appearances. Can she—and can Williams—line up a fifth meeting, and their first on clay?

· Barty has six top-10 wins and four titles in 2021, the tour leader in both categories, but she has won only one match at the Foro Italico, in the second round in 2019.

· Djokovic and Nadal have dominated the Rome honours board, winning 14 of the past 16 titles. Will the two giants meet for a record 57th time, and a ninth in Rome? And can Nadal reach double figures with a 10th title?

· Neither of the top seeds has dominated the clay swing this year, with Nadal losing to Rublev and Zverev in the quarters of Monte-Carlo and Madrid, and Djokovic losing his only two tournaments since Australia. At least the Serb will not have to play the man who beat him in Monte-Carlo in his opener: Daniel Evans lost to Taylor Fritz in Round 1.

· Alexander Zverev is the only other champion in the draw (2017), and contested the 2018 title with Nadal. And only last week, he beat the Spaniard for the first time on clay on his way to a fourth Masters title in Madrid.

· Italy’s hopes: Madrid runner-up Matteo Berrettini, ranked No9, is joined by teenagers Sinner, ranked 18, and Musetti in Round 2, along with wild cards Gianluca Mager, Salvatore Caruso and Stefano Travaglia—all in the top 100. Rome has not had a men’s champion since Adriano Panatta in 1976.

Rome women’s champions in draw: Serena Williams (4), Elina Svitolina (2), Simona Halep (1), Karolina Pliskova (1)

Additional runners-up: Johanna Konta, Madison Keys, Alize Cornet

Rome men’s champions in draw: Nadal (9), Djokovic (5), Zverev (1)

Additional runner-up: Diego Schwartzman

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