Rome Masters preview: Djokovic, Nadal and Federer draw short straw with rankings on the line

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the Rome Masters 2016, where Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have dominated in recent years

As the glamorous European clay season pushes towards its climax at the French Open in two weeks’ time, there is a lot to play for—and not just euros.

The iconic Foro Italico hosts the third and final clay Masters after Monte-Carlo and Madrid, and is the tournament that most closely reflects the conditions at Roland Garros. Not surprisingly, then, it attracts the cream of the crop as they prepare for Paris. The entire top 10 is present and correct, and that also comprises all the champions and finalists in the draw.

Rome has, however, been dominated by two men: seven-time champion Rafael Nadal, who claimed his first title more than a decade ago, and four-time and defending champion Novak Djokovic.

These two have also contested two further finals apiece, and only Roger Federer has come close to denting their stranglehold: He has made the final four times, including last year.

And as the luck—or otherwise—of the draw would have it, all three men have fallen into the same half. Nadal, ranked No5, is lined up to meet top dog Djokovic in the quarter-finals, with the winner possibly facing Federer in the semis—though so top-heavy is the draw that any one of them could fall before their allotted places.

Top-half perils for Rome’s biggest winners

In Round 3, Nadal, 47-4 in Rome, is scheduled to meet No10 seed Milos Raonic, who scored his first ever win over Nadal in Indian Wells last year. The Canadian reached three Masters quarter-finals back to back, including the clay of Madrid and Monte-Carlo, and was a finalist in Indian Wells this year.

For Djokovic, on a 34-5 run in Rome, Round 3 poses No14 seed Gael Monfils. The in-form Frenchman has already won 21 matches this season, including a final finish in Monte-Carlo, where he took Nadal to three sets.

And lying in wait for Federer and his 31-15 record is one of the most improved young players on the tour, No13 seed Dominic Thiem. Including their first meeting in Brisbane this year, the 22-year-old Austrian has notched up 29 wins, two titles from three finals—two of them on clay—and reached a new career-high. After an exhausting season, he was beaten in the first round of Madrid, so will arrive in Rome relatively rested and dangerous.

The fourth potential quarter-finalist, in the Federer/Thiem section, is No6 seed Kei Nishikori, a finalist in Miami and on Barcelona’s clay and a semi-finalist in Madrid this week.

Incidentally, Monfils, Raonic and Richard Gasquet—another possible quarter-final opponent for Federer—are all former semi-finalists in Rome, and the last of them scored one of only two wins over Federer here in 2011.

Clay markers from other contenders ahead of Rome

There have been strong clay markers thrown down by both young and not so young as they head to Rome.

In the top half, in addition to those mentioned, are:

· Nick Kyrgios, a semi-finalist in Estoril and quarter-finalist in Madrid (where he beat French Open champion Stan Wawrinka);

· Joao Sousa, quarter-finalist in Madrid and a three-time career clay finalist;

· Grigor Dimitrov was a finalist in Istanbul;

· Philipp Kohlschreiber was champion in Munich, with a semi run in Barcelona—could face Nadal in Round 2;

· Pablo Cuevas won back-to-back clay titles in Brazil in February, and beat Kohlschreiber and Monfils in Madrid;

· Alexander Zverev, up to a career-high 43 after his semi run in Munich, is up from 110 this time last year.

Stand-outs contests are Dimitrov vs Zverev in the first round—with the winner to play Federer in his opener—plus Kyrgios vs Raonic in the second round.

And in the bottom half are:

· Madrid defending champion and finalist this week, No2 seed Andy Murray;

· Teenage Borna Coric, finalist in Marrakech plus quarter-finals in Estoril—and lined up for Murray if he beats an opening qualifier;

· Jack Sock was a finalist in Houston with a third round finish in Madrid;

· Benoit Paire was semi-finalist in Barcelona and Estoril.

Stand-outs are Murray vs Coric, and David Ferrer vs home favourite Fabio Fognini in Round 2.

Can Murray or Wawrinka claim a first Rome title?

After reaching, and winning, his first two clay finals last year, Murray has followed a disappointing North American Masters swing this spring by again hitting the clay running. First he made the semis of Monte-Carlo, falling to Nadal in three sets, then this week he beat Nadal in the Madrid semis to set up his title defence against Djokovic.

It is a remarkable turn-around for one of the four men in the bottom half of the draw to make the Rome semis—Murray took Djokovic to a third-set tie-break in a thriller in 2011. But his improved back flexibility since surgery in 2013, the year he was forced to pull out of Rome with back pain, is now reaping huge rewards.

He has a manageable draw at the Foro Italico, give or take Coric or a qualifier in his opener and the gritty No15 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round. The quarters also present a chance to score his fifth straight win in just over year against No8 seed Tomas Berdych, also a one-time semi-finalist, after a convincing victory in Madrid. Which brings him to the semis and perhaps one of two other finalists in this half of the draw, Ferrer or Wawrinka.

The No2 Swiss is looking for the kind of form that carried him to the French Open title last year in a blizzard of shot-making prowess against Djokovic. He has clay credentials—a former Monte-Carlo Master and a former finalist both here and in Madrid.

Wawrinka blows hot and cold, but has beaten Murray in their last three matches, and in each clay meeting. There are clay dangers for the Swiss, the likes of Juan Monaco back with a protected ranking, plus Paire, but his first seed, Kevin Anderson, is back for the first time since ankle surgery in March and has rarely made headlines on clay. The biggest challenge is lined up for the quarters: either 2010 Rome finalist Ferrer or Monte-Carlo semi-finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

On the line

Federer is playing just his fourth tournament of the year, and on clay has only played three matches in Monte-Carlo. Knee surgery after the Australian Open, illness ahead of Miami, and a back injury while preparing for Madrid mean the Swiss is an unknown quantity this week. But, should he beat Dimitrov/Zverev, Thiem, and Nadal, he will move into second place in Open era victories, passing Ivan Lendl (1,071 wins) and trailing Jimmy Connors (1,256 wins).

Murray will remain at No2 in the rankings if he retains his Madrid title, but even if Federer rises to No2 on Monday, he has to defend final points in Rome. If he does so, and Murray loses the Madrid final, their ranking for Roland Garros may come down to Murray’s first couple of matches in Rome, where he has 90 points to defend.

If Nadal wins the Rome title, he will pass Guillermo Vilas to claim the Open Era record with a 50th title on clay. He is also looking to reclaim the top spot over Djokovic in Masters crowns: Both stand at 28, though Djokovic could steal a march with the Madrid title. Such boosts of confidence on either side could be vital come Roland Garros, but if Nadal survives the likes of Kohlschreiber, Kyrgios or Raonic before even facing Djokovic, it would be a timely reassurance that his form is heading upwards.

Previous champions in draw: Nadal (seven times), Djokovic (four times and defending)
Further finalists in draw: Federer (four times), Ferrer, Wawrinka
Potential seeds absent: Marin Cilic, Gilles Simon, John Isner
Oldest and youngest: Ivo Karlovic is 37, Zverev is 19

[NB top eight seeds have a bye in Round 1]

No1 seed Djokovic quarter
R2, Qualifier
R3, first seed, No14 Monfils
QF, No10 Raonic and No5 Nadal are top seeds
SF, No3 Federer, No13 Thiem, No11 Gasquet and No6 Nishikori are seeds

No3 seed Federer quarter
R2, Zverev or Dimitrov
R3, first seed, No13 Thiem
QF, No11 Gasquet and No6 Nishikori are top seeds
SF, No1 Djokovic, No14 Monfils, No10 Raonic and No5 Nadal are seeds

No4 seed Wawrinka quarter
R2, Paire
R3, first seed, No16 Kevin Anderson
QF, No9 Ferrer and No7 Tsonga are top seeds
SF, No2 Murray, No15 Bautista Agut, No12 Goffin, No8 Berdych are seeds

No2 seed Murray quarter
R2, Coric or qualifier
R3, first seed, No15 Bautista Agut
QF, No12 Goffin and No8 Berdych are top seeds
SF, No7 Tsonga, No9 Ferrer, No16 Anderson, No4 Wawrinka are seeds

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