Rome Open preview: Clay court king Rafa can reign again

He's won eight times already in Rome and Rafael Nadal is a solid favourite to be crowned king in Italy.

After taking supporting roles for the first act of the clay swing, tennis’s box office stars have elbowed their way into the spotlight.

In Madrid this week, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have put together significant runs just when they needed it. The King of Clay routed Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals and finds himself in the last four alongside the world No. 1, Dominic Thiem (naturally) and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

For the ATP players, the Italian Open starts on Sunday and punters should be aware that Rome’s Foro Italico is a more typical clay court (slow) than the zippy Caja Magica of Madrid.

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Rafa Nadal – obvious favourite

For a combination of reasons, I’ll go here with the greatest men’s player to ever play on the surface. We can start with his record.

From 14 outings at the Italian Open, Nadal has collected eight titles and compiled a match record of 56-6. After Roland Garros and Monte-Carlo, this event has been his most profitable pit stop.

Given the world No. 2’s dominance on the dirt, it’s ridiculous to think that only making the semi-finals in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona counts as disappointing. While the 32-year-old was blown off the court by Fabio Fognini in the Principality, he was merely edged by an outstanding Dominic Thiem in Catalonia.

This week in Madrid, Nadal is into the last four again but looks much sharper. He didn’t lose a set en route to the semis and only coughed up three games to a tamed Stan-imal.

Apart from recent improvement, the 11-time French Open champion has a decent start to his draw in the Italian capital.

Nadal will play Richard Gasquet or Jeremy Chardy first and is then projected to meet Nikoloz Basilashvili (3rd round) and Thiem (quarters). While the Austrian has been magnificent on the clay so far, I have a sneaky feeling that all that tennis might catch up with him in Rome.

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Roger Federer – not a certain runner

When’s the last time that the Swiss was such an outside shout. Here’s the thing though: he may not play.

While Federer’s name is in the draw, he said a decision on whether to participate in Rome would only be made this weekend. Having just played his first clay event in three years, the Swiss is understandably wary of straining himself before an assault on Roland Garros.

If he does play, there isn’t a spectacular reason why he couldn’t see off the likes of Frances Tiafoe and Borna Coric to setup a quarter-final meeting with Tsitsipas. However, should Federer withdraw, I think the uber-talented Greek will navigate his way through this section.

Kei Nishikori – a dark horse given the draw

It’s been a reasonable clay court campaign so far for the Japanese.

While Nishikori surprisingly fell in the first round of Monte-Carlo to Pierre Hugues-Herbert, a semi-final run in Barcelona did much to restore confidence. In Madrid, the 29-year-old fell to Wawrinka in the third round which is an acceptable setback.

I like Nishikori’s draw in Rome where Zverev is the foremost threat. Provided that he isn’t upset by the tricky Guido Pella early on, Nishikori’s good enough to set up a last eight bout with the World No 4.

A point in his favour: Nishikori beat Zverev in their only previous meeting on clay (Monte-Carlo 2018).

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Fabio Fognini – the form pony

On the face of it, picking a guy who has only one Rome quarter final from 11 appearances and a penchant for unpredictable performances is bonkers. But it’s not that ridiculous when you look at the Italian’s recent form and draw.

It’s less than a month since Fognini captured the biggest title of his career in Monte-Carlo. Remember that he beat Sascha Zverev, Borna Coric and Rafa Nadal back-to-back to do that. In Madrid, he won a couple of matches before losing to Thiem which is far from embarrassing.

As for Rome, the 31-year-old finds himself in Roger Federer’s quarter of the draw. He starts against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and would probably have to get through Stefanos Tsitsipas to make the last eight. If the Italian is on song, that’s doable.

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