Rafael Nadal continued to work his way back into form Thursday at the Rome Tennis Masters. The King of Clay more than lived up to his billing thrashing countryman Marcel Granollers 6-1, 6-1.
This year on the red clay Nadal, a 5-time Rome champion, is 12-0 and hasn’t lost a single set.
“I started the match bad with two double faults with my serve, but after the first two or three games, I started to play well – good forehand, control of the point and going to net,” said Nadal. “Conditions were difficult and windy but I think I found rhythm and after third game I played very solid.”
Having tougher goes were Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Djokovic is still finding the road rough as he tries to defend another title from a sparkling 2011 season. Today, Djokovic was stretched to three sets 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 by Juan Monaco who is coming off a ankle injury.
The Argentine was actually up a break in the second on Djokovic before things fell apart.
“Mental strength is what is needed, especially when you are playing against a player who has already won two tournaments on this surface this year already and is playing with confidence,” Djokovic said. “There are many thoughts that go through your head [when you are down a set] but you try and focus and think positive… I have enough experience to know what to do and I used it today.”
Federer kept his win streak going. After his majestic title in Madrid Federer has played well this week on the red, and today looked incredibly sharp for 45 minutes against former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrer. But late in the second the Swiss lost his game allowing Ferrero to steal the set. But Federer quickly righted the ship to cruise in the third for a 6-2, 5-7, 6-1 victory.
The big story of the day belonged to Andy Murray who fell to Richard Gasquet 6-7, 6-3, 6-2. Murray, like Gasquet was a Rome semifinalist a year ago, revealed afterward that the back injury that kept him out of Madrid has been bothering him all season.
“Similar to the other night,” said Murray in regard to his win over David Nalbandian. “Long match and sore back towards the end, but I was expecting that coming to the tournament. I didn’t take a break from training and playing a lot, but the muscles are more tired and fatigued.
“I don’t want to go into detail here about it and the treatment but it’s been there for a while – since December. You wait for the right moment and then there is the French Open and then Wimbledon and then the US Open coming up and there is not much time for rest – anything goes. The best time to do it is now so when the French Open comes up I will be in peak condition.”
Ten days to get ready? For Murray’s sake, at least he has an injury (or not) to fall back on. Because his game is crumbling at the very worst time of the year with two Slams and an Olympics in the next 75 days, and then the US Open. New coach Ivan Lendl cannot be happy either with the results thus far – just one title in Brisbane.
Also today, in a mild upset JW Tsonga took out a flat-looking Juan Martin Del Potro. Andreas Seppi overcame SIX matchpoints to stun a choking Stan Wawrinka and David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych were also winners.
I’m really surprised by Del Potro’s poor performance. Hopefully it’s just a blip. He was up a break at 4-3 in the first set and then only managed one more game. I didn’t catch the end, perhaps Tsonga, as unpredictable as he is, just got hot?
So Friday quarterfinals look like Djokovic-Tsonga, Federer-Seppi, Berdych-Nadal and Ferrer-Gasquet.
The best of the bunch for me is Berdych-Nadal, and I think Rafa wins. Even though Tomas has the game and weaponry to beat Nadal – he’s done it before – Rafa’s out for blood this week. He’s also won 10 straight over Berdych, though he’s lost a set in the last two. And like last Sunday, if things do get tight Berdych will mentally melt.
“His level is fantastic on clay and hard and grass,” said Nadal of the Czech. “He is a complete player and so tomorrow will be a difficult match for me. If I play my best, it will be possible.”
Surprisingly, Tsonga leads Djokovic 5-4 in their series. But on clay I give the edge to Novak, even though he’s been at his best this dirt season.
“I am not worried,” Djokovic said about his level as we approach the French. “I think I played well and the 2 matches that I played in the tournament in different conditions – at night and day and I found my way to win against a good opponent who plays well on this surface and this is encouraging for the next challenge.”
And I like Federer over home favorite though tired Seppi and Ferrer to end Gasquet’s hopes.
In the women’s quarterfinals are also tomorrow. Serena meets local hero Flavia Pennetta and Venus plays Sharapova. What a great win for Venus today bouncing French Open finalist Sam Stosur. She’s back!
“Every match is a lesson and a challenge for me. I think that all wins are great wins nowadays,” Venus said. “I’ve had to get used to a lot of things and I’m still figuring out a lot. I’m making adjustments at the beginning of every week.
“All I can do is be positive when I’m down.”
Tennis Channel has live men’s coverage starting at 6am ET with Ferrer-Gasquet with women’s quarterfinals at 1:30pm ET before the men return with Federer at 3pm ET.
FRIDAY ROME SCHEDULE
CENTRALE start 12:00 noon
F Pennetta (ITA) vs  S Williams (USA) – WTA
Not Before 1:30 PM
 T Berdych (CZE) vs  R Nadal (ESP) – ATP
Not Before 4:00 PM
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs  J Tsonga (FRA) – ATP
Not Before 7:20 PM
 A Kerber (GER) vs  P Kvitova (CZE) – WTA
Not Before 9:00 PM
 R Federer (SUI) vs A Seppi (ITA) – ATP
SUPERTENNIS ARENA start 12:00 noon
 D Ferrer (ESP) vs  R Gasquet (FRA) – ATP
 D Cibulkova (SVK) vs  N Li (CHN) – WTA
Not Before 3:00 PM
[WC] V Williams (USA) vs  M Sharapova (RUS) – WTA
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