Matt Zemek

Yes, yes, yes — the home of the Italian Open is the Foro Italico, but on Friday, one of the most loved stops on the two tennis tours becomes the “Four-Oh Italico,” because there are four genuine blockbusters on the docket, two for the WTA and two for the ATP. In terms of talent, storyline, or both, these are four matches fans and tournament directors would not have minded having in a Sunday final… but they will all be quarterfinals on Friday in Italy.

Maria Sharapova’s win over Daria Gavrilova on Thursday in Rome was utterly predictable… but it has to be said that Gavrilova’s 0-4 third-set comeback against Garbine Muguruza the night before was anything BUT predictable. Sharapova had a good situation on her hands, but she had to put in the work needed to take advantage of it, and she did. Beating a tired opponent should not be used as a gauge of form, but playing the reigning French Open champion on Friday should give us more of an insight into the status of Sharapova’s game. Her match against Jelena Ostapenko owns box-office-level dimensions. If you enjoy seeing two fundamentally aggressive players trade howitzers all day, this is the match for you.

Angelique Kerber, having been injured, needed matches this week. Elina Svitolina, after another early exit in Madrid, needed matches this week. They both achieved their basic goal of getting to Friday. One will move on to Saturday and collect even more match play before Roland Garros. Kerber and Svitolina both exited Paris last spring under difficult circumstances, Kerber in her “annus horribilis” and Svitolina after losing a 5-1 second-set lead to Simona Halep in the quarterfinals. Both women want to change the tone, texture and trajectory of the stories they are writing in 2018. Now they get to do something about it against each other. Svitolina should rate as the favorite, but after she stumbled through a bagel in set one against Daria Kasatkina before rallying to take the match in three, one should not be too comfortable in assuming anything about that match.

On the ATP side, Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori will meet again after locking horns in Madrid. Both men looked very smooth in convincing round-of-16 wins on Thursday. A natural point of intrigue will relate to the different conditions in Rome compared to Madrid. Djokovic-Nishikori matches usually get to a stage in the seventh game or later when the outcome of the set hangs in the balance and Nole reliably seizes the moment. Nishikori needs to win this match not for the points or the money, but to give himself the belief that he can prevail in a tight situation against Djokovic. It has happened in the past (see the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals), but it doesn’t happen most of the time.

As for Djokovic, he will be playing in a Masters quarterfinal for the first time in many months, since he was just coming off his necessary health-related break in Indian Wells and Miami and had to miss the second half of the 2017 season due to injury. Djokovic was stopped by Dominic Thiem in the round of 16 in Monte Carlo. He almost earned a date with Rafael Nadal then. He is close to earning a date with Rafael Nadal now.

Speaking of Rafa… his match against Fabio Fognini would not carry as much intrigue in Monte Carlo or Barcelona or in a hardcourt Masters 1000, but in Rome, it crackles with electricity. Fognini — showing how much he has underachieved in all his years of playing professional tennis — is only now arriving at his first Rome quarterfinal. What a prodigious waste of talent. Yet, as he showed against Dominic Thiem earlier this week, when he decides to compete and dig in his heels, he is a very tough out. He is not a long-distance endurance man — five-set matches at this stage of his career do not suit him — but in a best-of-three firefight, his chances of winning should be taken seriously. With Italian fans backing him every step of the way, Fognini could be a very rough customer on Friday. Nadal needs to get an early lead on the scoreboard so that the crowd won’t be too involved. It is rare when a player of Rafa’s status runs into such a thorny combination of opponent and crowd, but this qualifies as a rare instance. The matchup isn’t necessarily what makes this confrontation special; it’s the timing and location which lends contextual intrigue to the encounter.

Sharapova-Ostapenko. Kerber-Svitolina. Djokovic-Nishikori. Nadal-Fognini. One day in The Eternal City.

This is what the old Latin phrase “panem et circenses” means in tennis terms. A quartet of dream quarterfinals will enliven the Four-Oh Italico.


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