The Glory That Is Rome: ATP Rome Draw Preview
No sooner does the dust settle in Madrid than the action kicks off at the last clay Masters 1000 tournament on the Road to Roland Garros. In fact, the action in Rome’s Foro Italico starts on the day of the Madrid final, offering some extra entertainment for those unsatisfied with the prospect of just one ATP match in their Sunday.
First quarter: A bit of an enigma this clay season, Novak Djokovic has accomplished the most when the least was expected (Monte Carlo) and accomplished the least when the most was expected (Madrid). The world No. 1 has won two titles in Rome, one against potential third-round opponent Stanislas Wawrinka in 2008. Most fans will remember the five-set thriller that they contested at the Australian Open, and Wawrinka will bring considerable momentum to Rome after reaching the final in Madrid with upsets over two top-eight men. A third such victory does not lie beyond his reach, for he also has defeated Murray and Ferrer on clay this year. But Wawrinka has not defeated Djokovic since 2006, dropping 11 straight meetings, and he may have accumulated fatigue from not just Madrid but his Portugal title the week before.
The lower part of the quarter features Tomas Berdych and three towers of power. While Kevin Anderson collected a runner-up trophy in Casablanca, he has suffered a string of setbacks to Berdych in 2012-13 and has shown little sign of reversing that trend. Fellow giants Marin Cilic and John Isner exited early in Madrid, as they usually do on a surface that exposes their indifferent footwork and mobility. Berdych has thrived against opponents of a style similar to his, so his chances of meeting Djokovic or Wawrinka in the quarterfinals look strong. Never has he defeated either man on clay, however, and Djokovic has dominated him relentlessly, including two victories this year.
Second quarter: Much to the relief of his fans, Rafael Nadal will control his own destiny regarding a top-four seed at Roland Garros. The defending champion landed in the same quarter as compatriot David Ferrer for the second straight week, which means that he will pass him in the rankings if he wins the title. One feels a bit sorry for home hope Andreas Seppi, a quarterfinalist in Rome last year who seems likely to lose all or most of those points. Even if survives an opener against fellow Italian Fabio Fognini, which he could not in Monte Carlo, Seppi will become Nadal’s first victim in the next round. Finally gone from the top 10, a dormant Janko Tipsarevic meets an equally dormant compatriot in Viktor Troicki to start the tournament. Nadal demolished Tipsarevic in their previous clay meetings, while Troicki has threatened him only on the fast hard court of Tokyo. Neither Serb might even reach the Spaniard, though, if Monte Carlo quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen hopes to continue his unexpected clay success.
Blow after blow has fallen upon Ferrer on his favorite surface over the last few months, from two routs in clay finals to an opening-round loss in Barcelona to the painful collapse against Nadal last week. That Madrid match surely will linger in his mind if they meet in the same round here, although Fernando Verdasco might prevent it. This fading Spaniard looked suddenly improved in Madrid and has a handful of clay victories over Ferrer, but he has lost their last few meetings. A semifinalist in Barcelona, Milos Raonic should struggle to find the consistency necessary to outlast Ferrer here.
Third quarter: This section contains more intrigue than the others because the two bold-faced names who anchor it have struggled this clay season. Lucky to scrape through Madrid as long as he did, the third-seeded Andy Murray finds himself fortunate to find no clay specialists in his immediate area. The man who knocked Federer out of Madrid, Kei Nishikori, will look to follow up that breakthrough by defeating Murray for the first time. After he came within five points of upsetting Nadal in 2011, Paolo Lorenzi earned a wildcard into the main draw to become Nishikori’s opening test. Veterans like Nikolay Davydenko and Feliciano Lopez have sunk too deeply into decline to mount sustained runs.
Absent from Madrid and tepid in Monte Carlo, Juan Martin Del Potro hopes to recapture the form that saw him notch two top-five upsets (and nearly a third) at Indian Wells. He has earned successes on clay before, including twice taking Federer to five sets at Roland Garros and reaching a semifinal there in 2009. Del Potro must beware of Nicolas Almagro in the third round despite the latter’s struggles at Masters 1000 tournaments this year. Remarkably, the two men have not met at the ATP level, so it would be fascinating to see what their explosive shot-making can produce in unison. Either possesses stronger clay-court expertise than Murray, as does Almagro’s potential second-round opponent Juan Monaco. Regrouping from an early-season slump, Monaco has won a set from Djokovic and defeated Tipsarevic over the last month. He also stopped the Scot in Rome before and won his only clay meeting with Del Potro, albeit seven years ago.
Semifinalist: Del Potro
Fourth quarter: The Foro Italico has witnessed some of Roger Federer’s most ignominious setbacks at events of this level, including losses to Filippo Volandri, Radek Stepanek, and Ernests Gulbis. Slowest of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments, the surface left him more vulnerable than the others to the lapses in consistency that have increased as he has aged. Former nemesis Stepanek could meet him again in the second round, although Federer defeated him comfortably in the same round of Madrid. Also lurking in this section, with a wildcard, is Volandri. That particular ghost of Romes past probably will not have the chance to haunt Federer, for Tommy Haas should continue his current string of solid results to reach him in the third round. While Haas won their most recent meeting on the grass of Halle, he has lost all of their other matches since 2007, one of them after winning the first two sets at Roland Garros. Another man who has troubled Federer late in his career, Gilles Simon, might test the German’s consistency in the second round.
Perhaps the most compelling figure of those vying to meet Federer in the quarterfinals is neither of the two seeds but Grigor Dimitrov. Until now, though, Dimitrov has shown a tendency to alternate breakthroughs with breakdowns, so his upset of Djokovic in Madrid could precede a pedestrian effort in Rome. Both of Richard Gasquet’s clay victories over Federer have come at clay Masters 1000 tournaments, heightening the significance of what otherwise would seem an easy test for the Swiss to conquer. A shootout could unfold in the second round between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and powerful young server Jerzy Janowicz, but neither man should last long on a surface antithetical to their strengths.
Final: Nadal vs. Del Potro
Champion: Rafael Nadal