In an unexpected way, Madrid’s shift to blue clay adds to the significance of the Rome tournament that follows it. Now the only important joint event on red clay, Rome becomes clearly the best preparation for Roland Garros and all the more valuable now that it lacks a companion. We preview the men’s draw today and the women’s draw tomorrow.
First quarter: One tournament before seeking a Nole Slam at Roland Garros, Djokovic has greeted the red clay with enthusiasm already as he returns to his focused self this week. Especially useful is the opportunity to test his skills on the surface against a dirt devil like Juan Monaco, who once defeated Murray here and recorded some of his strongest results this spring before suffering an ankle injury in Monte Carlo. If the Argentine remains hampered in his movement, a key strength, former Rome semifinalist Stepanek might meet Djokovic in the third round instead. That less formidable challenge would not test the Serb greatly en route to a possible quarterfinal with another Argentine, the player outside the top eight most likely to wreak havoc on clay. For the second straight tournament, Del Potro could collide with Youzhny in a match where his power should trump the Russian’s grace. Perhaps somewhat diluted by the exceptionally slow surface, his ball-striking ferocity might meet its equal in a third-round battle of sledgehammer serves and groundstrokes against the sixth-seeded Tsonga. Like most of his compatriots, the Frenchman never has developed the tenacity or consistency required to construct points on clay, whereas Del Potro has learned how to temper his aggression with patience. None of his weapons appear to intimidate Djokovic, however, who never has lost to him outside a Davis Cup retirement and defeated him in four relatively uneventful sets at Roland Garros a year ago. Sporadically successful against the world #1 at non-majors, Tsonga has looked thoroughly mediocre since January and probably would not threaten him here even if he earns the opportunity.
Second quarter: Handed especially fearsome early draws at his three previous Masters 1000 tournaments, including two three-setters with Raonic, Federer will feel relieved to see no opponent of note in his vicinity. The new world #2 will hope to maintain that ranking for the additional week that he needs to claim the second seed in Paris, but he has not reached the final in Rome since losing a classic to Nadal in 2006. In almost every clay season, Federer seems to suffer at least one embarrassing setback, and Rome has witnessed defeats to the forgettable likes of Volandri, Stepanek, Gulbis, and Gasquet. That said, one hardly could imagine the Madrid champion falling to Carlos Berlocq or even Monfils. Although he conquered the Swiss legend at the Paris Indoors in 2010, Gael has not threatened him on clay and cannot bring much confidence into his next tournament after winning just two games from Berdych. Also recovering from an early-round debacle in Madrid is Isner, a perpetually ominous presence on all surfaces and the only player in the quarter who has defeated Federer on clay. That victory came in Davis Cup this year, not a venue suited to an individualistic Swiss who has won all of their other meetings, including the Indian Wells final. But Isner must find his footing on the dirt immediately to escape Munich champion Kohlschreiber, a flamboyant shot-maker with the ability to expose the American’s backhand. The most plausible clay competitor in the section, Wawrinka could encounter Madrid semifinalist Tipsarevic in the second round. Notching his only win over his compatriot on clay in Monte Carlo, the Swiss #2 extended Djokovic to a three-set final here four years ago. If Federer suffers a post-Madrid hangover, his grinding understudy could exploit it.
Third quarter: Absent from Madrid with a back injury, Murray reappears at the tournament where he delivered the best clay tennis of his career in 2011. Outplaying Djokovic for much of their thrilling semifinal, the world #4 dragged his then-undefeated rival into a third-set tiebreak. Perhaps because of his greater success on spring hard courts in 2012, Murray’s clay form appeared to recede with early losses at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. An early ambush by Nalbandian could await an unwary Scot, who then might face a familiar foe in Gasquet. Twice has the Frenchman won the first two sets from Murray at majors, but both times the more accomplished competitor has wrested away those matches from his underachieving peer. All the same, Gasquet shone on the red clay of Estoril and the blue clay of Madrid before Federer extinguished him, while he reached the quarterfinals in Rome last year with a victory over the Swiss. On the opposite side of the section loom two relentless counterpunchers who should relish the slow court. Enjoying his best year to date on red clay, Simon has defied stereotypes of French fecklessness there and should contest an extended duel with Ferrer in the third round. Immediately after his seismic upset over Nadal, however, Verdasco may have gained the momentum to upset his fellow Spaniard in his opener. Less substantial are the hopes of another Madrid quarterfinalist, Dolgopolov, who will find the sluggish Rome surface less suited to his eccentric, reckless shot-making. Able to subdue Simon on virtually all surfaces, Murray will hope that the Frenchman forestalls Ferrer. Whereas the Scot has dominated his hard-court meetings with the Spaniard, the latter has turned the tables whenever they have clashed on clay.
Fourth quarter: Even before he stepped onto the court, Nadal would seem to have dodged a bullet when potential opening opponent Raonic fell to the less imposing Mayer. On the other hand, the German won their only previous meeting and may keep Rafa off balance initially with his arrhythmic style. Vying to face the world #3 in the third round are two Spaniards, Lopez and Granollers, and a pair of frustratingly disinterested competitors in Fognini and Baghdatis. Outside the debacle of last week, Nadal generally feasts upon both compatriots and mentally fallible opponents, so an intriguing quarterfinal collision with Berdych would loom. The Czech sounded deeply disappointed by the conclusion to an otherwise outstanding week in Madrid, highlighted by a compelling straight-sets victory over Del Potro. Arguably the most dangerous player on clay outside the top three, he must find a way to regain his positivity after Federer narrowly stemmed his tide in a memorable final. Battling with more courage than usual although falling short once again, Berdych now faces the daunting prospect of starting from the beginning again. In an odd quirk of the draw, he could meet Almagro for the third time this year and the second time since verbal daggers flew between them at the Australian Open. Since the Spaniard avenged that perceived slight by thrashing the Czech at Indian Wells, Berdych might enter such a match especially motivated to avenge the revenge. Just as he did in Melbourne, he would face Nadal a round after Almagro. Increasingly competitive against the Spaniard after a prolonged arid stretch, he never has defeated him on clay and generally seems to stimulate a fierce, focused effort from Rafa.
Final: Federer vs. Nadal
Champion: Rafael Nadal