First Ball In, 5/12: Roman Revival

Monday, May 12, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Monday Review

The Eternal City was a revival ground for a couple of veterans. Venus Williams and Francesca Schiavone, who both turn 34 next month, celebrated successful returns today.

Wearing a black baseball cap rather than her customary visor, Venus served 66 percent, hit five aces, and permitted only four games in blitzing 2012 Roland Garros junior champion Annika Beck in 71 minutes. Playing her first match in more than a month, the 1999 Rome champion showed familiar aggression, swatting a pair of forehand swing volleys to end the first set. Williams will play for her 150th career clay-court victory against either No. 13 seed Carla Suarez Navarro or Mona Barthel in round two.

Schiavone masterfully mixed her spins and speeds and showed exceptional feel at net, blunting drives with angled volleys in befuddling Eugenie Bouchard, 6-4, 6-2. The Italian all-courter, who doubled her opponent's winner count, 32 to 16, desperately needed the win to jump-start an atrocious season.

The 2010 Roland Garros champion had lost in the first round in nine of 12 tournaments this year, including a horrific nine-match losing skid. Aside from her 2005 upset of Serena Williams, Schiavone has seldom played her best tennis in Rome—she had made opening-round exits in six of her prior 14 appearances, including each of the past two years—but showed her court craft and plenty of positive energy today, which isn't surprising.

Chatting with a friend in the media workroom prior to the 2010 U.S. Open quarterfinal between Williams and Schiavone, I heard the rush of approaching footsteps echoing outside as if someone was about to bust through the back door. We walked out in the hallway to take a look. It was Schiavone running wind sprints up and down the hallway and working up a serious sweat about 10 minutes before walking out on court. Williams stopped Schiavone's run with an entertaining 7-6 (5), 6-4 win that day, suggesting both Grand Slam champions could still pick up the pace.

"Seems like everybody is hitting their stride at 30. It's the new 20," Venus said.

***

Italian Thriller

Organizers could have issued complimentary cannolis and still struggled to promote the clash between 162nd-ranked wild card Simone Bolelli and 293rd-ranked qualifier Stefano Travaglia as a sweet treat.

But career stakes were so high—Bolelli was bidding for his first ATP main-draw win since the 2013 Miami Masters, while Travaglia was fighting for the first main draw win of his career—that they inspired raw passion and riveting tension in an all-Italian thriller.

Travaglia, so obscure that his ATP player page lists his playing hand as "unknown" (he's a righty with an affinity for the drop shot), served for a career first at 5-4 but tightened, missing a pair of backhands badly and dropping serve. The qualifier fought off two match points to force the tiebreaker—then things got a little wild.

Travaglia, unscarred by his prior backhand misses (he committed 28, and a couple were pretty scary),  hit an audacious backhand dropper to lure Bolelli in before blasting a cross-court backhand pass for 4-all—the type of sequence that can blow open a breaker. It didn't. Unfazed by his opponent's bravado, Bolelli won three of the final four points in a 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (5) victory that wasn't the prettiest match of the day but was one of the most pulsating.

Bolelli, who once beat Tomas Berdych at Roland Garros, earned 10 straight clay-court wins in collecting successive Challenger titles last month. He plays Milos Raonic next.

***

Downsized

A day after Jurgen Melzer defeated John Isner to eliminate the lone American man in the singles field, veterans Tommy Haas and Radek Stepanek beat Long John and Long Island native Scott Lipsky in doubles.

Since Isner partnered Sam Querrey to win the 2011 Rome doubles title, he has won just one match—in singles or doubles—in Rome. The Bryan brothers, who beat Isner and Querrey in the 2010 doubles final, are the defending champions and lone American men remaining.

***

Throwing in the Towel

Grigor Dimitrov has celebrated some of his biggest wins this season by tossing sweat bands and towels to supportive fans clamoring for mementos after matches.

Giving back to his fans perhaps wasn't the only thing on Dimitrov's mind when he threw two red tournament towels into the crowd after defeating Edouard Roger-Vasselin, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. Dimitrov said the fresh fabric didn't get the job done.

''They're new and they don't absorb any sweat," Dimitrov said of the towels. "Three or four times I was about to lose my racket. I asked several times (for all-white towels) but they told me, `We don't have it.'''

OOP Analysis

See Tuesday’s Order of Play here.

(9) Dominika Cibulkova vs. (WC) Camila Giorgi: This is all about the first strike and first serve. Neither woman gives up ground willingly and both will look to punish the opponent's second serve. Australian Open finalist Cibulkova should be eager after winning just four games against Samantha Stosur in a first-round Madrid loss; Giorgi usually relishes taking shots against seeds: She upset Maria Sharapova at Indian Wells, but is playing just her second clay-court tournament of the year.

(2) Novak Djokovic vs. Radek Stepanek: Given Djokovic's 9-1 career mastery of his friend and sometime sparring partner, this rematch of the 2008 Rome semifinals would seem insignificant. But it will be intriguing to see how the two-time champion's injured right wrist holds up, and the level of play he delivers, after missing Madrid. Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, who squared off in the 2008 Rome final, treated fans to a spirited practice on Sunday:

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