Swiatek returns for title defence, Nadal and Djokovic seek more milestones

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The Italian Open is one of the most iconic tournaments in the tennis calendar. Not only does it date back almost 80 years for both the men’s and women’s tours, it is played at the magnificent Foro Italico, where the original marble stadium still provides the centrepiece, like a Roman colosseum, surrounded by its towering athletic statuary.

Now the ever-popular Pietrangeli arena is overlooked by one of the finest centre courts in tennis—a fan’s delight where every seat offers perfect sight-lines and the acoustics reverberate to great effect.

And into these picturesque surroundings come the gladiators, ready to complete their preparations for the biggest and best clay tournament of the year in Paris in less than a fortnight’s time.

Little wonder, given the setting, plus courts that anticipate Roland Garros rather better than those in Madrid, that there is a near-complete line-up of the best in tennis.

On the women’s side, 29 of the top 30 are in the draw, missing only one potential seed in the injured Barbora Krejcikova. Other notable withdrawals, though, have been Naomi Osaka—who pulled out after the draw with an Achilles problem—and two-time former champion, Elina Svitolina.

In the men’s draw, the most notable absentee is the player of the moment, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who beat Rome’s most prolific former champions, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, on the way to his second Masters title yesterday in Madrid. The Spaniard, up to No6 this week with a 28-3 season, needed to rest and recuperate before his assault on the French Open.

Daniil Medvedev, world No2, and Matteo Berrettini, No8, are also out, recovering from injury issues, and another late withdrawal came from No16 seed Roberto Bautista Agut.

Even so, 10 of the top 12 will try their luck, along with some notable dangerous men using protected rankings to find their clay feet before Paris, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, and Borna Coric. Wawrinka is searching for his first match-win since the 2021 Australian Open in only his third event this year, following foot surgery. Thiem has not won a match since Rome last year due to a wrist injury. Coric had won just one match since Rotterdam last year, following shoulder surgery, and that run continued with a Round-1 loss to Laslo Djere.

What to follow in the WTA draw

World No1, 20-year-old Iga Swiatek, did not play the Madrid 1000 last week, needing to nurse a shoulder injury that followed her stunning undefeated run at 1000-level through Doha, Indian Wells and Miami. Add in a semi run at the Australian Open, and the Stuttgart title in her only clay tournament so far, and she has put together a 32-3 season.

She also happens to be defending champion in Rome, where she is chasing her fifth title in a row. Her biggest threats come in the shape of former runner-up Victoria Azarenka in Round 3, then Emma Raducanu or Anett Kontaveit in the quarters, with Jessica Pegula and Simona Halep possible opponents in the semis.

Teenager Raducanu is seeded 10, so does not enjoy one of the eight byes to the second round. She happens, too, to have drawn fellow former US Open champion, playing with a protected ranking, Bianca Andreescu, in their first meeting.

With the withdrawal of Osaka, their segment has opened up a little, though Swiatek threatens their progress beyond the quarters. But Raducanu, who had no clay experience before this season, has adapted quickly for a 5-3 run so far, and is eyeing a top-10 breakthrough if she gets a deep run on her debut in Rome.

Other notable openers, this time in the bottom half, are No15 seed Coco Gauff against Angelique Kerber, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, runner-up last year at Roland Garros, against US Open runner-up, Leylah Fernandez.

No2 seed Paula Badosa has also been building her clay skills, perhaps not living up to home hopes in Madrid, but could pile on points in Rome, where she plays for the first time. Her chief trip-wires on paper will be former champion Karolina Pliskova or Jelena Ostapenko, but dangerous players like Pavlyuchenkova and Daria Kasatkina lurk for the third round.

The same half also holds Garbine Muguruza, Madrid champion Ons Jabeur, and Maria Sakkari, all of them formidable prospects.

And do not forget former champion but unseeded Simona Halep. Now working with inspiring coach Patrick Mouratoglou, and with a stack of injury issues in the rear-view mirror, she will hope, she will be bidding to come good in Rome, in time for an assault on a second French Open title.

What to follow in the ATP draw

Rome has to go back to 2004 to find a final that did not feature either 10-time champion Nadal or five-time champion Djokovic. It is an extraordinary record, with six of those finals featuring both men. The only other players to win during that dominance are Alexander Zverev, the No 2 seed and runner-up in Madrid yesterday, and the absent Andy Murray.

Nadal has played Rome every year since 2005, reaching 12 finals, Djokovic has played every year since 2007, reaching 11 finals. Their problem is that they are drawn in the same half, so any meeting will be in the semis.

To achieve that, Nadal may have to beat Casper Ruud, David Goffin or Hubert Hurkacz, after Denis Shapovalov.

Djokovic could reach his 1,000th win if he reaches the semis this week, but in his path are Aslan Karatsev, Wawrinka, Diego Schwartzman or Felix Auger-Aliassime. In short, a 59th meeting between the old rivals is certainly on the cards.

No2 seed Zverev won his first Masters in Rome in 2017, the first of five at that level from 10 finals—including Madrid. He will hope for some time to recover from his brutal schedule over the weekend, as there are tricky early non seeds like Alex de Minaur and Sebastian Baez to contend with, and the ever-ready Cam Norrie lines up for the quarters—where Alcaraz is missing. But Norrie also has Cristian Garin and Marin Cilic here, and the other bottom quarter features Monte-Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas and No6 seed Andrey Rublev.

The home campaign, especially with Berrettini’s absence, will focus on young No10 seed Jannik Sinner, quarter-finalist at the Australian Open, and the Miami and Monte-Carlo Masters. But after four titles last year, he is yet to win in 2022. That he has fallen into the segment with fellow Italian, unseeded local fave Fabio Fognini, plus Thiem and Rublev, will not ease his path. And Lorenzo Sonego, who made the semis in Rome last year, put up a sterling effort against No13 seed Shapovalov, but ultimately lost in three sets.

There are, though, a plethora of Italian wild cards in both the men’s and women’s draw for the Rome fans to get behind.

Background information, women

Draw 56; eight round-1 byes

Former champions in the draw: Swiatek [one, defending], Halep [one, and twice runner-up], Pliskova [one, and twice runner-up]

Former additional finalists in draw: Azarenka

Absentees from draw: Krejcikova, Petra Kvitova, Elise Mertens, Svitolina, Marketa Vondrousova

Protected ranking: Andreescu, Karoline Muchova

2022 WTA clay champions in draw:

Charleston, Belinda Bencic

Stuttgart: Swiatek

Madrid: Jabeur

Background information, men

Draw 56; eight round-1 byes

Former champions in draw: Nadal [10 and defending, plus two more finals], Djokovic [five, plus six more finals], Zverev [one, plus one more final]

Former additional finalists in draw: Schwartzman, Wawrinka

Protected rankings: Coric, Thiem, Wawrinka

Absentees from draw: Medvedev, Alcaraz, Berrettini, Taylor Fritz, Bautista Agut, Gael Monfils

2022 ATP clay champions in draw:

Buenos Aires, Ruud

Santiago, Pedro Martinez

Houston, Opelka

Marrakech, Goffin

Monte Carlo, Tsitsipas

Belgrade, Rublev

Estoril, Baez

Source: Sport Review

    

Author: Ellen Garcia