We are down to just eight at the final prominent pre-French tune-up this week in Rome, and it’s a Big Eight with five guys over 6-foot-5, two former champions and the workhorse Dominic Thiem.
Rafael Nadal leads the way and he’s the clear favorite to win an eighth Rome title come Sunday. Nadal routed Jack Sock today 6-3, 6-4 for his 17th straight win on clay (12 straight sets).
Sock made a slight push to start the second, but Nadal just overwhelmed the American. The backhand was going, the forehand was going and Sock was running on a string.
“There is always room to improve. That’s why I wake up every morning. I go to practice with the motivation to improve something,” said Nadal. “I can keep serving better. I can hit some more winners with the forehand and it’s something that I am working on every day to try and make happen. But it’s obvious that I am playing well and I should be very happy with the way that I am doing things.”
There’s only one guy playing more physical tennis right now than Rafa, and that’s Nadal’s next opponent, Thiem.
The Austrian had to come from a set down to deny Sam Querrey in a thrilling final set breaker 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(7), saving three matchpoints in the effort.
Querrey had the match on his racquet but Thiem just is so unrelenting, especially in crucial moments, and the American couldn’t convert.
American did have something to smile about as John Isner used that wicked serve to stun Stan Wawrinka 7-6(1), 6-4. Stan had five chances to break John’s serve, but failed each time. So Stan’s prep is over (unless he plays Geneva) and in three clay events he won a total of two matches. But with Stan, it probably doesn’t mean anything and he’ll likely win the French! Or not!
Novak Djokovic’s wins and losses do mean something and today he had a really good one beating Roberto Bautista Agut. The Spaniard is tough on all surfaces and makes his opponent’s play, and behind a good serving day Djokovic did just that with a 6-4, 6-4 victory.
“I feel like today’s match was one of the better ones that I have played this clay court season, but also in the past couple of months,” Djokovic said. “It came at the right time, of course. All the players are aiming to raise their level of tennis as we’re approaching Paris, but especially here in Rome at one of the biggest and best tournaments in the world.
“I like Rome and the conditions here. I have had plenty of success in the past in this tournament. I think it all affects my overall feeling here and I’m ready for the challenge,” the 4-time champ added.
Djokovic now faces Juan Martin Del Potro who ousted Kei Nishikori 7-6(4), 6-3. Using that big forehand of his, Del Potro won his fifth match against Nishikori in six tries, and he did it in straights so after a first round scare against Grigor Dimitrov, he should be fresh for the Serb tomorrow.
“It was amazing,” Del Potro said of the win. “It was like a soccer match for me. I enjoyed the crowd a lot. My feelings are the best when I get onto the court and the crowd is cheering for me. That’s incredible for all the players.
“My game is improving on this surface, which is important for my confidence.. I think I’m not very far away from my highest level, so I’m happy for that.”
In a big boy match, Milos Raonic chopped up Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-2. Alexander Zverev continued to show his clay prowess beating Fabio Fognini 6-3, 6-3 and in a mild surprise, Marin Cilic ousted David Goffin 6-3, 6-4.
“It was a great match for me,” said Zverev. “I think I played very well, was very aggressive from the baseline. Fabio is someone who plays well here. And he beat the World No. 1 a few days ago, so I just felt like I was feeling the ball very well and was very aggressive. It worked out well for me.”
So the quarterfinals are set. On to my picks.
Milos Raonic v Alexander Zverev
It’s the first meeting between the Zverev family and Milos and I like the German here. I think he’s playing better. While Milos has the more potent serve and has the experience, I think Alex moves better on the clay and is the in-form guy. Zverev in three.
John Isner v Marin Cilic
Cilic had owned Isner winning all six of their meetings until last fall in the Paris semis.
“He has been a bit of a thorn in my side. He’s playing well and seems to be serving very well also,” said Isner. “It should be a close match. Not much has separated us when we have played each other in the past.”
So with his recent win, John comes in with a real chance here. Cilic, though, has been playing well of late winning Istanbul so I lean to the Croat to break John’s serve at least once for the win. Cilic in three.
Rafael Nadal v Dominic Thiem
While Nadal has been winning in straight sets of late, Thiem’s been winning in much longer matches, including a 3-setter today against Querrey. And I think that catches up to Dominic in the quarters against Rafa. Thiem is seemingly tireless, but Rafa isn’t seemingly unbeatable on clay, he is unbeatable on clay. Like Madrid, Rafa in two.
Novak Djokovic v Juan Martin Del Potro
Form tells me Del Potro but my gut says Djokovic found something today that will carry over. Head-to-head it’s Djokovic 13-4 including two tough wins this year at Acapulco and Indian Wells and also two wins on the clay. And with the match on clay, to me that tips the scale in favor of Novak who has to be desperate for signature win this spring. Djokovic in two.
FRIDAY ROME SCHEDULE
CENTRALE start 12:00 noon
WTA – [Q] A. Kontaveit (EST) vs  S. Halep (ROU)
Not Before 2:00 pm
ATP –  A. Zverev (GER) vs  M. Raonic (CAN)
Not Before 4:00 pm
ATP –  D. Thiem (AUT) vs  R. Nadal (ESP)
Not Before 7:30 pm
WTA –  V. Williams (USA) vs  G. Muguruza (ESP)
Not Before 9:00 pm
ATP – J. del Potro (ARG) vs  N. Djokovic (SRB)
NEXT GEN ARENA start 12:00 noon
ATP – J. Isner (USA) vs  M. Cilic (CRO)
Not Before 2:30 pm
WTA –  K. Bertens (NED) vs [Q] D. Gavrilova (AUS)
Not Before 4:30 pm
WTA –  E. Svitolina (UKR) or [Q] M. Barthel (GER) vs T. Bacsinszky (SUI) or  K. Pliskova (CZE)
ATP – R. Bopanna (IND) / P. Cuevas (URU) vs  P. Herbert (FRA) / N. Mahut (FRA)
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