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Previewing the ATP Masters 1000 Draw in Rome

May 10th 2014

The last significant destination on the road to Roland Garros welcomes the top men and women to the home of gladiators, popes, and gelato. One of the most picturesque venues in the ATP, the Rome Masters 1000 event has witnessed many a classic war of attrition on its reddish-yellow clay. With the second major of the season looming two weeks ahead, the time has come to embrace the grind.

Rafael Nadal

First quarter:  Seemingly back on track after a strong week in Madrid, Rafael Nadal will hope to reproduce that form in the Eternal City. The slow courts in Rome should suit his game more than the altitude of Madrid, and once again his early draw does not look formidable. Nadal’s most notable early test might come from compatriot Fernando Verdasco, who won an ATP 250 title on clay this spring. But Verdasco never has defeated the world No. 1 on a surface other than the short-lived Madrid blue clay, and his European results have not dazzled in recent weeks.

The other three seeds in this quarter rarely produce their best tennis on clay. While Mikhail Youzhny has won just three matches in 2014, John Isner fell meekly at his events on the red dirt after a spring hard-court resurgence. Isner’s one-dimensional strengths should play into the hands of agile returner and retriever Andy Murray, unlucky to land in Nadal’s section as he pursues his first final since winning Wimbledon last year. Something bizarre would need to happen for that drought to end in Rome. It did in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but not in Madrid. Murray has not defeated any of his Big Four rivals since returning from back surgery.

Stanislas Wawrinka

Second quarter:  Which version of Stanislas Wawrinka will come to Rome? If it is the “Wow-rinka” who defeated Nadal and Novak Djokovic to win the Australian Open, and Roger Federer to win Monte Carlo, a thrilling semifinal battle with Rafa might loom. If it is the greatly depleted version who lost to Kevin Anderson, Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Dominic Thiem at Masters 1000 events this year, an unseeded opportunist might be ready to pounce. Several Italian home hopes surround Wawrinka, including former Rome quarterfinalist Andreas Seppi and Paolo Lorenzi. Seppi will open against the vulnerable Tommy Haas, who lost to qualifiers at each of his last two tournaments. Receiving a wildcard into this year’s event, Lorenzi once came within five points of upsetting Nadal on this court.

At Indian Wells, Tomas Berdych lost his opening-round match to Roberto Bautista-Agut. He may have a chance to avenge that result in the opening round of Rome, although Bautista-Agut will ride a tide of momentum after reaching his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Madrid. Berdych has lost seven of his last eight meetings with Wawrinka, and his even greater futility against Nadal is well-documented. Thus, it’s hard to see a deep run from him even if he can repeat his three-set victory in Madrid over Grigor Dimitrov. A slower court might help the Bulgarian weather Berdych’s first strikes more effectively here.

Roger Federer

Third quarter:  Now the father of two pairs of twins, Roger Federer prioritized personal issues last week over honing his clay skills in Madrid. He still plans to appear at Roland Garros, however, which makes Rome a critical period of preparation if he remains entered in the event. The draw sets up favorably for Federer, situated near a cluster of big-serving but largely clay-averse opponents and unreliable competitors. He has suffered some alarming setbacks in Rome before to unheralded foes such as Filippo Volandri and Radek Stepanek. Still, he also has reached three finals in the Italian capital. Home hope Fabio Fognini has looked largely disinterested this spring and lacks belief against elite opponents.

Those same traits apply to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has been almost embarrassingly non-competitive against top-10 opponents since the start of 2012. One of his most notable victories in that span came against Federer, though, on the clay of Roland Garros. But Tsonga cannot afford to look too far ahead.  A first-round encounter with Alexandr Dolgopolov, who has compiled seven wins against top -20 opponents this year, looks like an upset in the making. Towers of power Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson seem unlikely to fuse their games smoothly with the slow dirt in Rome, although Raonic has reached three Masters 1000 quarterfinals already this year.

Novak Djokovic

Fourth quarter: The status of world No. 2 Novak Djokovic remains uncertain after a wrist injury forced him to withdraw from Madrid. A two-time champion and four-time finalist in Rome, Djokovic will need to arrive in peak physical condition to survive the tests of fitness that the surface poses. Offensive weapons may serve him better than defense in a section populated by veteran clay counterpunchers. Former Madrid semifinalist Pablo Andujar, a possible opening-round adversary, battled Nadal to a third-set tiebreak on South American clay earlier this year. Tommy Robredo has seen his results dwindle in 2014 after reaching two major quarterfinals in 2013, but he has forced Djokovic to toil through long matches before.

Like Nadal, second-ranked Spaniard David Ferrer rebounded in Madrid from an ignominious loss in Barcelona. Deep runs at both clay Masters 1000 events this spring suggest that Ferrer still may have some strong tennis left in him despite his advancing age. His last tournament before defending finalist points at Roland Garros, Rome suits his dogged baseline style as much as any other event on the calendar. The bad news for Ferrer is that the draw has aligned him to face Kei Nishikori in the third round. Making his top-10 debut this week, the Japanese star has been a thorn in the Spaniard’s side at two of the last three Masters 1000 tournaments and reeled off a double-digit winning streak on clay.