Last year, Rafael Nadal entered Rome with a chance to win all five clay events. All eyes were on the Spaniard in his pursuit of a first-ever clean sweep of red dirt, from Monte Carlo through Paris. This year, Nadal doesn’t have that same opportunity, but he does have Dominic Thiem in his quarter yet again. They met in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals. They met in Madrid. If they meet in Rome, Nadal will want to hand Thiem payback for Madrid’s loss. That matchup, should it occur, would obviously rate as a significant story in Rome. Yet, with Thiem having shown that he can beat Rafa in 2018, the next truly significant meeting between the two will come on Court Philippe Chatrier, if that moment comes to pass.
At this year’s ATP Tour stop in Rome, the biggest story isn’t Nadal — not in light of the fact that his 50-set clay streak and “clay five-pack” aspirations have been stopped.
This Roman rendezvous is a supremely important tournament not for Rafa, but for the man who — once upon a time — beat him at Roland Garros and became the world’s dominant all-surface tennis player, Novak Djokovic. Nole has once again received a very good draw through the quarterfinals. He doesn’t need to win this tournament, but he does need to collect at least three or four matches. If he makes the semifinals, Nadal will probably be waiting for him. Merely getting the chance to play Nadal would give Djokovic a chance to measure his game against the best. If Djokovic can collect five matches this week, play Nadal, and then get a favorable draw in Paris, he could meet Nadal in the Roland Garros final. He would not be expected to win, but he would gain points, improve his Wimbledon seeding, and generally set himself up for a 2018 season in which he could be a factor at all the majors.
If, however, Djokovic loses early — especially before the quarterfinals and a possible meeting with either Kei Nishikori or Grigor Dimitrov — it will be hard for him to enter Paris with any concrete idea of what he can do in a best-of-five-set match against a top opponent. Moreover, his seeding will take a hit since he is defending 600 points in Rome from 2017. If any single player — relative to his stature in the sport and the expectations which follow him — needs to make the semis in Rome, Djokovic tops the list this coming week. He is truly the big story in Italy, bigger than Rafa.
Like Djokovic — but on a smaller scale with less comparative urgency — a few other players need to do well in Rome to set up both their Roland Garros campaign and the rest of their season.
The man Djokovic could face in the quarters, Grigor Dimitrov, has to begin to produce. A career is quickly wasting away. Dimitrov needs to plant his feet and take a stand, showing the backbone he rarely displays. There is not much else to say about Dimitrov at this point.
Another man in need of a big Roman romp: Pablo Carreno Busta. He gets to play Kevin Anderson (potentially) on clay, a week after Anderson went deep in Madrid and is not likely to be very fresh. PCB, if he does play Kando, should win that and get to the quarters. The highest seed in his quarter is Marin Cilic, who struggles on clay and at Masters 1000 events. PCB, with a big run in Rome, can pick up a large chunk of points to set him up for the ATP Race to London and give him a better chance of occupying the top 10 for an extended period of time.
The other two men who can really use a semifinal or better in Rome are in Alexander Zverev’s quarter. Juan Martin del Potro and Borna Coric could meet in the second round. They could both pick up a lot of points, like PCB, if they can string together several wins in Italy. Delpo blew a chance to move up to a top-four seeding position at Roland Garros when he flinched against Dusan Lajovic in Madrid, but if he can deliver in Rome, he can still move up the food chain. Coric let Dominic Thiem elude his grasp in Madrid, weeks after he couldn’t finish sets against Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo. Coric, who was strong in March on North American hardcourts, needs to show that he can close down important matches against elite players. He at least needs to dump Delpo if he wants to take any confidence to France.
Nadal is the big name, and Thiem has announced his presence on the clay circuit again, but Novak Djokovic needs a productive Rome more than any other high-profile player. Several other pros jockeying for position in the weeks before Roland Garros also need to play into Saturday at the Foro Italico.
The time has come for a Roman rally in the various quarters and sections of this ATP draw.
Image taken from Zimbio