Madrid is in the rear view mirror. It is now time for one of the longest running events on tour to take center stage once again. Rome has played host to the Italian Open since 1930. It is the crowned jewel on the road to Roland Garros for the world’s best tennis players as the last major stop before the French Open. Here are some things to watch for.
Madrid surprises in a tricky spot
Dominic Thiem ended Rafael Nadal’s 50-set, 21-match win streak in the quarterfinals of Madrid. The fifth seed lost in the final to second seed Alexander Zverev. These are great, somewhat unexpected results for this pair. However, clay is hard on the body and Madrid-Rome is the toughest back-to-back the calendar has to offer. Zverev and Thiem have been around the top of the game for a while now, but neither has figured out how to be a consistent factor at the Grand Slams.
So much of doing that is not overplaying in the lead up to the majors and peaking at the right time. Withdrawing from Rome is a bit extreme, but early losses for Zverev and Thiem might not be the worst thing in the world. The same can be said for surprise Madrid ladies finalist Kiki Bertens. Champion Petra Kvitova has already withdrawn from Rome. Kvitova is a two-time Grand Slam winner.
Nadal attempts to restore order
As mentioned above, Nadal lost on clay in Madrid last week. Anytime that happens, it is big news. Beating Nadal on clay best of three sets in a regular tour event is one thing. Beating him best of five sets at Roland Garros is entirely another.
This is probably the biggest reason for Nadal’s 79-2 lifetime record at the French Open with 10 titles. For reference, Nadal lost in Rome last year and quickly rebounded to win the French Open without dropping a set. So there is no reason for the panic alarm if you are a Nadal fan.
Still, this year’s Rome event is significant for him. Nadal does not want the rest of the field to start thinking they have a shot in Paris. A sixth Rome title would go a long way towards reaffirming his dominance. It would also return Nadal to the top ranking that he relinquished to an absent Roger Federer with his loss in Madrid.
Sharapova hunts French Open seed
Two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova showed signs of life in Madrid by reaching the quarterfinals after three fairly routine wins. She eventually lost a tight three-setter to Bertens.
The result boosted her ranking to 40th in the world. The top 32 will be seeded at the second major of the year in about two weeks. In an honest moment, both Sharapova and her competitors will tell you that they do not want her name just floating in the draw and able to land pretty much anywhere. To have a chance at avoiding that crapshoot, Sharapova must at least match her Madrid result. Then, it would come down to other results. The three-time Italian Open winner will start against 16th seeded Ashleigh Barty of Australia.
Remember, Sharapova was unseeded at last year’s US Open and knocked off second-seeded Simona Halep in the first round. As fun as matches like that can be for the fans, they are a nightmare for players that early in a Grand Slam. We already know that Victoria Azarenka will be unseeded in Paris. The same can be said of Serena Williams if she decides to play. Adding an unseeded Sharapova to that mix would make for a lot of very nervous people on draw day.
Women’s top ranking on the line
Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki have had somewhat disappointing clay-court seasons. Wozniacki has never done well on clay, but Rome is a big week for Halep, who has twice been French Open runner-up.
The Romanian needs to reach at least the quarterfinals to retain her top ranking heading to Paris. The rest will come down to Wozniacki’s result. Halep could open against Azarenka, who is a two-time major winner. Being the top seed at a major is a noteworthy honor and could serve as a nice confidence boost for either woman.
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