Matt Zemek

The importance of Rome — on both tours — is simple and profound. As the last big tournament before the French Open, Rome offers players one last chance to secure a seed, attain a specific seed number, build rhythm, gain matches, and generate confidence. Points and inner belief are the foremost ingredients players need.

It is true that some players will play the week before a major if they have not played much tennis by the time Rome ends. In 2016, Kiki Bertens played Nuremberg the week before Roland Garros, won the tournament, and carried that level of form through the semifinals, when — hampered by injury — she narrowly lost to Serena Williams. Yet, that is the exception which proves the rule among seeded (highly-ranked) players on tour. Most approach Rome as the final tune-up for Paris. The stakes are evident in these terms. They are also evident when measured against Madrid.

Most high-profile players (save Serena Williams and a few other select examples) generally need at least some match play — three or four matches minimum — in Madrid and Rome to feel they can endure the seven-match gauntlet of Roland Garros. Therefore, players who lose very early in Madrid need at least a couple of wins in Rome to work on their games, explore patterns, taste a few particular matchups, and enter France with the idea that they have a plan and a path.

Without further ado — and without elaborate analysis — here are some of the WTA professionals who need to leave Rome with one important possession, if not more:

Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka, assuming they meet in the second round, need to win that head-to-head matchup. Halep needs the win for points. Azarenka can use the points but needs matches much more than Halep does heading into Paris.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, if she is to have any realistic hope of making a dark horse run in Paris, has to beat Madison Keys in round one.

Sloane Stephens needs at least three matches in Italy. She has to develop the kind of rhythm she found when she went deep in Toronto and Cincinnati before her U.S. Open title. She has to give herself a chance to play her way into form.

Garbine Muguruza also needs at least three matches. She needs to do enough work that when she gets to Paris, she will be ready to win long and complicated matches if they arise. Maria Sharapova, should she meet Muguruza in the third round, would love to win that clash and gain the high-value scalp needed to boost her level of belief heading into France.

Jelena Ostapenko doesn’t need anything, because she defined all conventions and normal expectations last year.

Angelique Kerber needs at least three matches.

Daria Kasatkina and Elina Svitolina could sorely use a deep run, which means beating the other in the third round, assuming both players get that far.

Anastasija Sevastova and Kristina Mladenovic need to beat each other in round one.

Who will win the title? Who will make the final? Those questions will become important when the field shrinks to eight or four players, but the larger importance of Rome lies in surviving the opening stages and forging a fundamentally productive week. The end of a tournament gets more publicity, but the beginning carries much more tour-wide importance… rarely more than at Rome. This tour stop — like Cincinnati — combines a high point value with the status of “last significant lead-up event before a major.” The grass season and the Australian Open lack such a tournament.

Let the festivities begin!


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