The final tune-up before the French Open is already underway (for some reason) in Rome where virtually the same field as we saw in Madrid is assembled (just replace a few Spaniards with Italians!).
Eight-time champ Rafael Nadal is again the favorite despite still searching for his first title of any kind this season. Madrid winner Novak Djokovic has won Rome four times and 2017 titlist Alexander Zverev is also in the mix.
Roger Federer is again a big story. He returns for a second clay warm-up after a decent week in Madrid. Fed’s never won Rome and I don’t think he ever will. So with that, to the draw…
NOVAK DJOKOVIC QUARTER
With the mojo back and a nice draw, you have to like Djokovic’s chances in his quarter. PCB or Shapovalov can be tricky and so too can Daniil Medvedev or Stan Warwinka in the quarters, but otherwise I don’t think Novak will or should have any issues here. Juan Martin Del Potro is also in there but after a bye he could open against Wawrinka. Coming off a knee issue to playing clay is tough, especially for someone so fragile like Delpo. The Medvedev-Nick Kyrgios could be a good first rounder but in the big picture it shouldn’t matter.
The Pick: Novak Djokovic
ALEXANDER ZVEREV QUARTER
The good news for 2018 finalist/2017 winner Zverev is he finally won back-to-back matches for the first time in two months last week in Madrid. The bad news is is that is not fake news. So that’s how bad it’s been for the German who’s been the biggest disappointment of 2019. That said, he’s got the best draw of the top seeds. He’ll open against the tough home standing Mateo Berrettini, then Gael Monfils followed by either Marin Cilic or Kei Nishikori for a semifinal spot. He should be favored in all those matches and I’m actually going to lean his way here to break out of that slump in the city in which he won his first big title.
The Pick: Alexander Zverev
ROGER FEDERER QUARTER
As I said, Fed made a good return last week in Madrid before Dominic Thiem wore him down. I think Borna Coric or Stefanos Tsitsipas plays that role in Rome. Roger will open against either Frances Tiafoe or Joao Sousa (two tough opponents), then likely Coric who will battle Felix Auger-Aliassime in the first round. If Fed gets through the Croat, I think Tsitsipas takes him out. The Greek’s won Estoril, finals in Madrid where he beat Nadal. BEAT NADAL! That’s pretty good. And of course he’s already beaten Federer before and after a good draw out to the quarters, on his better surface I think he does it again. The kid’s very level-headed, very poised and he’s got the game to hurt Roger on clay. And he’s beating these top guys!
The Pick: Stefanos Tsitsipas
RAFAEL NADAL QUARTER
What do we make of Rafael Nadal this year? He’s getting older, he’s wearing down, he’s not as formidable as he once was and now he’s losing weekly on the clay. Does that continue in Rome? I’m not sure. It’s easy to pick Rafa to breakout and win one just because of history, but looking at the results on paper, things are different these days. Luckily, at least early for Rafa, he has a great draw which leads to a Friday quarterfinal with Thiem who also has a very nice road. So between Rafa and Thiem, I think Rafa is the call because he’s won this event eight times and after missing Monte, Barcelona and Madrid, it’s getting desperate.
The Pick: Rafael Nadal
Djokovic d Zverev: Rematch of the 2017 final goes the other way.
Nadal d Tsitsipas: Altitude not a factor, better conditions for Rafa and he gets his revenge on the Greek who may be tiring after a great few weeks.
Djokovic d Nadal: I think Novak now has that confidence, avenges a semifinal loss to Nadal last year. For Rafa, at least he gets to a clay final but his title defense comes up just short. So that’s progress, no?
While Federer’s return was the headline entering the clay season, who saw Rafa come up short in three events leading into Rome trumping that? No one. And so here we are in uncharted waters wondering if the King of Clay is dead.
I don’t know. He doesn’t know and we won’t know for a while. He’s healthy, he’s motivated and still shows flashes of power, but he’ll be 33 in less than a month and after years of physical tennis – I know a lot of people never thought he’d last this long – maybe it’s catching up.
Or maybe not.
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