Roman Reversals

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 /by
Marble statues stand sentry on the grounds in Rome. (AP Photo)
Marble statues stand sentry on the grounds in Rome. (AP Photo)

What a difference a couple of days make on tour. Rome has started out looking like Madrid through the looking glass. Two of those who were up last week, Grigor Dimitrov and Ana Ivanovic, are already out. Roger Federer has cut his hair, and he cut out the shanks that plagued him at the Caja Magica in a 51-minute blitz job over Potito Starace on Tuesday evening. The Romans themselves sound like Madrileños in reverse: Rather than whistles, Novak Djokovic heard little but love from them in his comfortable opening-round win today. Next thing you know, Maria Sharapova will be announcing her break-up with Dimitrov on a camera lens after her next victory.

The atmosphere couldn’t be more different in general. Where the courts are sealed away in concrete in Madrid, they’re sunken and open to the strolling public in Rome. So open that, with a TV and a couple of side-by-side streams on your laptop, you can almost feel like you’re strolling from one court to the next there yourself, even if you’re an ocean away. Here are a few notes from the early rounds in Rome.

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More Days, More Dollars...More Sense?

This has always been a busy stage of the season, with big events running right up against each other in the madly compressed dash toward Paris. But Madrid and Rome have taken the take the race up a notch. No longer do they follow on the heels of each other; they out and out overlap. While the eyes of the tennis world were focused on Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal in Madrid on Sunday, main-draw matches were already going off in Rome. The same had been true the weekend before, when Madrid got a head start by opening on the weekend. The same will be true in a couple of weeks, when the French Open kicks off on a Sunday.

Is this a positive development? Is more always better? It’s hard to begrudge the European Masters their desire to expand, when their counterparts in Indian Wells and Miami have gobbled up two weeks of the calendar apiece for years. With player prize money on the rise at the Grand Slams and Indian Wells, how long will it be until Madrid and Rome feel the pressure to give their own significant raises, if they don't already? The extra days of tickets sold may become a necessity.

Still, overlapping the tournaments is hardly ideal for fans trying to follow along at home. Ion Tiriac has made no secret of his desire to expand Madrid (though he has long maintained that draws should be smaller). Rome has done a lot of development on its grounds in the last few years, since it went dual-gender—the place seems to have been completely revamped and rebuilt since I was there in 2007. Is there a way, without blowing up the clay season, to separate the tournaments so they have room to grow without running over each other?

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Americans, Vanquished and Vanishing

In one way, it does make sense for the big European tour events to expand, because the continent has virtually eliminated the competition at the top of the game, especially on the men’s side. With the Madrid title going to Rafael Nadal, Europeans have won the last 29 Masters titles, as the well as the last 13 Grand Slams. Nine of the current Top 10 men are Euros, as are seven of the Top 10 women. Of those 20 players, only one, Serena Williams, is from the United States. Even Canada's most recent hope, Milos Raonic, has struggled in Europe; today he went out in his opener to Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Just when Americans thought that things couldn’t get any worse on clay, well, they have. In the old days, you knew we weren’t going to win any titles on dirt, and chances are we weren’t going to win many matches, either; but at least we got to watch our players head ignominiously for the exit. This year, in Rome, Sam Querrey and John Isner both lost on the tournament’s first Sunday, before TV cameras had arrived in the city. Can a 30th consecutive European Masters triumph be stopped? As of now, only Kei Nishikori of Japan, Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, and Kevin Anderson of South Africa stand in the way.

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The More Things Change...

Two things have remained the same in Madrid and Rome: The puzzling and complete lack of success of Caroline Wozniacki and her friend Agnieszka Radwanska.

Wozniacki lost her third straight first-round match on dirt to a lower-ranked player, in this case Bojana Jovanovski, who hadn’t won a match since the Australian Open and played today with her upper left leg wrapped in tape. I know that Wozniacki’s game isn’t made for clay, but in the past she excelled at winning early rounds with her superior patience and consistency. I only saw the final-set tiebreaker today, which she lost from 5-2 up. This time, when it counted, she was the one who made the errors. Yet I don’t sense that Wozniacki is any less confident in her abilities than she was when she was No. 1.

As for Aga, I watched the first half of her upset at the hands of Simona Halep. Radwanska’s game is also not built for clay; like Caro, she doesn’t have the power to hit through the slow court. Today it seemed that the clay was a great equalizer. Halep matched Radwanska retrieval for retrieval, angle for angle, dig for dig, point for point. Aga didn’t look happy about any of it, even when she was winning.

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An Exo Waiting to Happen, No?

What’s the rematch that the tennis world awaits the most? For many, it would be Rafael Nadal vs. Lukas Rosol, a restaging of last year’s earth-shaking upset. There haven’t been many chances in the last 10 months, what with Rafa’s absence and Rosol’s middling ranking, which means he has to qualify for tournaments like Rome. But it looked like we had a chance, when Rosol was awarded a lucky loser’s spot in the draw, just a couple of brackets down from Nadal. Alas, their third-rounder wasn’t meant to be, as a not-so-lucky Rosol lost today to Viktor Troicki, 6-4 in the third set.

Maybe it’s time to forget the tour and try to put these two together in an exhibition. On grass, say, in England, the week before Wimbledon. I’m pretty sure they’d both give everything they had not to lose that one.

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