Many of the top players on the ATP World Tour take part in their final preparation for the French Open when the tour stops in Rome this week for Internazionali BNL D’Italia. This Masters level event has been controlled by three players over the last decade and in reality, two players. Rafael Nadal, this week’s fourth seed, is a seven-time champion at htis event with a 49-5 record. He is not however the defending champion. That belongs to faux #1, Andy Murray. Murray scored five of his career 14 wins in Rome during his impressive run to the title last season. Novak Djokovic is seeded second and he’s won the title here four times. Those three players are responsible for each title won in Rome since 2005.
Rafael Nadal unquestionably arrives this week as the King of Clay once again. He cemented his status (if you were daft enough to question it before last week) with a title on Sunday in Madrid over Dominic Thiem. It ran Rafa’s record on dirt in 2017 to 15-0 with titles in each of the three clay court tournaments that he has played in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. As for motivation, there’s plenty here for Nadal. He hasn’t won in Rome since 2013 and he hasn’t been to the final since 2014. I don’t really think he needs motivation at this point, but I don’t think his focus will wilt this week.
Nadal has rebuilt himself this season into not just a top five player, but arguably the best overall player in the game again. With all due respect to Roger Federer, Nadal has been the best all-surface player in 2017 since we don’t get to see the Swiss on clay until Paris. Since the seasonal surface flip to clay, he’s simply been a beast. For me, you can’t look down the list of Top 20 players right now and tell me one that you would feel confident to pick to beat Rafa right now. Clay is his empire and right now, he’s ruling with an iron fist.
Rest of the Field Chasing Form
The rest of the field, especially a lot of the seeds, could use an injection of confidence this week. Top seed Andy Murray has looked nothing like the confident player who was shocking the world on clay during this stretch last season. Novak Djokovic is coachless and still shaky enough on serve that nothing is a certainty for him at this stage. His performance against Nadal in the Madrid semifinals showed a clear chasm between the Spaniard and Serb right now. Then there is third seed Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss has been mediocre since making the Indian Wells final. He’s just 1-2 on clay and coming off an upset loss in his opener last week in Madrid to Benoit Paire. Wawrinka has done well in Rome with a 21-11 mark, but he’s only made it as fat as he final once back in 2008. Non-Slam Stan has been front and center lately.
The remainder of the top right seeds features more questions than answers. Fifth seed Milos Raonic looked worn out against David Goffin in a 6-4, 6-2 loss in his second match in Madrid. That came off the heels of a finals appearance in Istanbul. Rome hasn’t been a traditional stop for the Canadian due to injury or schedule the last few years. This is his first trip back to this event since making the semifinals in 2014. Raonic was a three-time first-up loser prior to that run, so he may be an iffy selection to do much this week.
Sixth seed Marin Cilic lost his opener in Madrid to a red hot Alexander Zverev in three sets. That’s not a bad loss, especially considering that Cilic had come off a title win on clay in Istanbul the previous week. Cilic is just 7-8 during his career in Rome. Seventh seed Kei Nishikori is once again an injury concern after withdrawing due to his troublesome wrist in Madrid. That robbed us of a chance to see Nishikori play Djokvic in the quarterfinals. It would have been a good measuring stick for both. Nishikori did make the semifinals in Rome last season, but carries considerable risk this week. It’s doubtful he’ll push himself too hard if the wrist is still hurting him with the French Open just a couple of weeks away.
The 8th seed this week is arguably the second best player on clay right now. That is Dominic Thiem. The Austrian has made back-to-back finals in Barcelona and Madrid. He’s lost both finals to Rafael Nadal and looked better in losing in Madrid than he did in Barcelona. Losses can build confidence when they come against the best, so Thiem should arrive feeling good despite the finals loss.
This will be just his third trip to Rome. He improved on a round of 16 showing during his debut here in 2015 with a trip to the quarterfinals in 2016. He beat Federer last year in the round of 16, before losing to Nishikori in the quarters. If we’re being honest right now, I think Thiem is probably the closest player to Nadal on this surface. The draw in Rome could give him a third straight crack at Nadal with the pair seeded to face each other in the quarterfinals.
Early Bird Specials
The last two stops in Rome have not featured much in the way of first-up upsets for seeds. Each of the past two seasons, just one seed has fallen in their opening match. Prior to 2015 though, Rome did see a few more upsets with three seeds down in their openers in 2014 and five in 2013. This year feels like there could be multiple seeds going down as consistency has been poor among the top tier players not named Federer, Nadal and Thiem.
With that in mind, let’s check the seeds who could be most prone to an early exit this week.
1. Andy Murray
Murray gets a difficult opener with Fabio Fognini. Fognini already has a match under his belt, winning in straights in opening round play on Sunday over an Italian wildcard. Fognini gave Nadal a tough test in second round play in Madrid last week, losing 6-4 in the third. Murray is 3-2 against Fognini, but one of the Italian’s wins came on clay in Davis Cup action back in 2014. Fognini is only 6-9 at the Rome Masters. Still, Murray’s poor serving and lack of confidence right now make that second round clash a tricky one and one with upset potential.
3. Stan Wawrinka
The universe loves a good dose of deja-vu and we get it all over again if Benoit Paire beats Nicolas Mahut in round one. Paire beat his buddy last week in Madrid and with Paire’s mental state from match-to-match and Wawrinka’s non-Slam efforts. that match could go any which way. Mahut scored a rare clay win over Jack Sock last week in Madrid, so he could block a possible rematch because ya know, #FrenchBrain on Paire. Don’t necessarily rake Wawrinka off the upset list if Mahut is there instead.
5. Milos Raonic
Raonic could have some trouble depending on who he gets matcjed up with first. He’ll face either Tommy Haas or Ivo Karlovic. I don’t think Haas would hold up against his serve for an entire match, but Karlovic would be an intriguing match-up. That could come down to a handful of points to decide the match and that becomes much more of a 50-50 toss-up. Raonic and Karlovic have split two career meetings.
7. Kei NIshikori
If healthy, expect Nishikori to get past David Ferrer or Feliciano Lopez. That if is there again though and a player like Lopez who can get into a service rhythm could be the bigger trouble. Nishikori beat Ferrer fairly routinely in Madrid last week before his wrist flared up.
9. David Goffin
Goffin has been playing well of late, making the Madrid semifinals last week. He does have a tough opener though against Thomaz Bellucci, who makes the main draw as a lucky loser. It seems like lucky losers have been on a bit of a tear in recent weeks. Bellucci is 2-2 against Goffin with both wins on hard courts. Their lone clay court meeting went to the Belgian in Gstaad in 2015. Goffin should be too consistent for Bellucci, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brazilian pushed him to three and that means anything can happen in the end.
10. Grigor Dimitrov
A horrible draw for the Bulgarian who finally got a few wins last week. He draws Juan Martin Del Potro in round one. DelPo has four wins in four tries over Dimitrov, but none have come on clay. DelPo could use some matches this week after being forced out of Estoril due to the passing of his grandfather. Dimitrov has been inconsistent most of the Spring, but he looked pretty good in Madrid. It’s too bad this is a first rounder. An upset seems possible here.
13. Jack Sock
Sock was an upset victim to Nicolas Mahut in Madrid last week. Perhaps that was just due to a lengthy layoff, but I’ll keep him on upset alert against Diego Schwartzman. The Argentine is good enough on clay to contend, but likely doesn’t have the serve to keep up with Sock. That is IF Sock brings his best. I think Sock wins, but again this could be trickier than anticipated for the seed.
15. Pablo Carreno Busta
PCB will start against Gilles Simon who has beaten him twice in three tries. One of those came on clay in Madrid last year. Carreno Busta has played Rome just once, losing his lone match in 2014. The Spaniard has been pretty consistent this year, but this isn’t the best spot for him. Simon’s backboard style of play will ask the Spaniard to play consistent tennis from start to finish. If Simon finds his serve to go with his ground game, he’s always dangerous.
16. Alexander Zverev
I put Sascha on the list this week mostly because of his busy schedule the last few weeks. He went straight from winning in Munich to Madrid last week. He was ousted by Pablo Cuevas in the quarterfinals Zverev has only played here once and he went 1-1 last season in his debut. He’s a much more consistent performer of late and Kevin Anderson normally on clay wouldn’t be a huge worry given Sascha’s recent form. Still, Anderson has qualifying matches completed and Sascha has thrown in a few early losses this season. If Anderson serves well, that one is interesting.
Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Milos Raonic (5)
Tomas Berdych (12)
Alexander Zverev (16)
The most consistent player among the seeds is the youngest, Sascha Zverev. Murray may have to contend with Zverev this week, if he’s going to make a run. They are seeded to face off in the third round. Both have to take care of some potentially tough customers before that can happen. If it does go down, Murray has the lone win in the series – a straight sets beatdown of Sascha at the 2016 Australian Open. They are very different players right now and I’d fancy Sascha’s chances to win that one.
Raonic’s half of the draw includes Berdych. Both seeds look likely to get through to a third round encounter. Raonic as stated earlier looks to have the tougher possible opener with Ivo Karlovic again the bigger danger over Tommy Haas. Berdych faces either Robin Haase or Carlos Berlocq. Berdych beat Haase last week in Madrid. If it comes down to the seeds, Raonic is 4-2 against the Czech. Their only clay court clash ended in a win via retirement for Berdych in Monte Carlo in 2015.
While there could be a bumpy road for the top seed in this quarter, I do fancy one of the seeds to get through. Zverev on form is the guy you’d like, but Raonic could be the better shot as long as he’s back up to par this week.
Quarter #2 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (3)
Marin Cilic (6)
David Goffin (9)
Albert Ramos-Vinolas (14)
Ramos-Vinolas is out already, falling to John Isner in opening round action on Sunday. The semifinals in Rome do see some non-seeded players on occasion with 2013 and 2016 featuring non-seeds in semifinal spots. There has also been at least one quarterfinal spot taken by a non-seeded player in each of the last four years. I tell you this because this quarter looks up-for-grabs. Wawrinka hasn’t been anywhere near consistent and as always is as good a shot to make the semis as he is to lose in his opener. Isner is an intriguing option in the top portion of the quarter. The American hasn’t done much in Rome (5-6) and has been very average this season, but he was on point on-serve in round one. If Wawrinka survives early tests, Isner could take him out later. The big man is 2-1 against the Stanimal.
The bottom half is interesting with Cilic and Goffin. Cilic has a decent enough opening match-up with either Ryan Harrison or Jared Donaldson. I fancy him to get through there, but he has lost his opener in Rome a few times in his career. Goffin’s reward if he beats Bellucci in his opener is Fernando Verdasco. Verdasco beat Donald Young on Sunday. Verdasco owns a 3-2 mark againt Goffin, including a win over the Belgian in Doha this season. They have split two career clay court meetings with Goffin winning in a third set tiebreak last year in Monte Carlo.
Watch Isner and Verdasco here if a non-seed is going to pull some shenanigans. I trust Goffin the most of the seeds here, although Cilic might have the best draw.
Quarter #3 Seeds
Rafael Nadal (4)’
Dominic Thiem (8)
Lucas Pouille (11)
Jack Sock (13)
The superlatives for Nadal’s play on clay are repetitive and well-warranted. He’s been fabulous. Lost in Nadal’s dominance has been the solid play of Thiem. Thiem will earn a trip to play Nadal again with Pablo Cuevas likely to be his second round foe. Thiem beat him 6-4, 6-4 last week. Pouille is the other seed in Thiem’s half. He was a disappointing early loser in Madrid to Pierre Hugues-Herbert. Pouille had been in good form prior to that and he made the semifinals in 2016 in Rome. Keep an eye on the Frenchman this week. He’s the one who could prevent Nadal-Thiem for the third straight tournament.
In the bottom half, Nadal doesn’t look to have much to contend with as Sock is the other seed. Nadal has Andreas Seppi or Nicolas Almagro to start. Sock has to get past Schwartzman and then Jiri Vesely is waiting. It’s difficult again to fathom Nadal not being in the mix at the end of the tournament and with another good early draw. Fatigue should not be a major worry as he’ll get a few days off before his first match in Rome.
Whether it’s Nadal-Thiem or Nadal-Pouille or something else, the honus is on the field to catch Nadal. No one has done it yet on clay. I’d be interested to see if Nadal-Thiem for the third straight week gets the Austrian a set. He improved over a poor effort in Barcelona in Sunday’s Madrid Finals loss. In the end though, no one is surprised that Nadal is again in position to play for a final.
Quarter #4 Seeds
Novak Djokovic (2)
Kei NIshikori (7)
Grigor Dimitrov (10)
Pablo Carreno Busta (15)
There were some positives for Djokovic last week. He made a late comeback to beat Almagro in his opener in Madrid and then played one of his better matches in beating Feliciano Lopez in two tight sets. A lot of that went out the window when Nadal dismantled him in the semifinals. The Serb looked ordinary compared to Nadal and his serve again was a huge minus. He does have a nice half of this quarter with Aljaz Bedene or wildcard Gianluca Mager as his opener. Bedene, as the qualifier, looks the bigger danger. He won a couple of Clay Challengers and then made the Budapest Final. He took Raonic to three sets in Madrid. He’ll make the Serb earn his first win if that is the match-up.
There is plenty more possible danger in Djokovic’s half with Nick Kyrgios, Carreno Busta and Gilles Simon all in the mix. Kyrgios plays Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round. The winner then plays the PCB-Simon survivor. Any of those four realistically against this version of Djokovic can push the Serb in a potential third round showdown. The top half could see the seeds in peril from the jump. Nishikori’s wrist is a concern and Dimitrov has perhaps the toughest opener against Del Potro.
Djokovic desperately needs the confidence building that a semifinal run would bring, but there simply are no guarantees with him right now. Nishikori is impossible to trust here with health being paramount over wins. Del Potro could be a sneaky non-seed to get through here if he’s able to start hot. Carreno Busta despite the tough opener with Simon is also someone who definitely could be in the mix.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …
It’s broken record time and it feels like it’s four of five years ago again. Rafael Nadal is your massive favorite again. His most difficult match could come before the semifinals against Thiem. It would be intriguing to get a Nadal-Djokovic rematch in the semis though to see just what the Serb can muster at this point. The only thing less shocking this week than Nadal winning would be seeing Murray not lose one of his first two matches.