First Ball In, 5/13: Digging in the Dirt
Novak Djokovic rapped his racquet against the side of his sneakers to loosen some clumps of clay. Shaking off the rust from nearly a month of inactivity was a bit more complex, but the world No. 2 got the job done today in winning a rematch of the 2008 Rome semifinals.
The Serb tamed an unruly wind and tricky Radek Stepanek to reach the third round for the eighth straight year. It wasn't easy—Djokovic dropped serve to open the match, and surrendered serve again trying to serve it out—but there were encouraging signs. Playing without the heavy taping around his cranky right wrist he wore in Monte Carlo, Djokovic moved fluidly and hit 22 winners against nine errors, raising his record to 10-1 against good friend and sometime sparring partner.
"It was one of the most difficult conditions I’ve played in in my life," said Djokovic, who signed the court-side camera 'Roma Ti Amo' (I love Rome) after improving to 14-1 in Masters play this year. "It was very difficult to get any kind of rhythm. Stepanek is a very experienced player, so that’s why I had to be super-focused every game because I knew he had this variety of shots."
The marble statues standing sentry around the Foro Italico had plenty of company today. Fans packed every corner of Pietrangeli Court to watch Italian wild card Camila Giorgi's 6-4, 7-6 (2) upset of ninth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, while those atop Court Central leaned over the railings to sneak a view.
Ripping shots on the rise, Giorgi beat Cibulkova in key forehand cross-court exchanges, compelling the Slovak to try to change direction—and resulting in three straight errors in the tiebreaker as Giorgi built a 4-1 lead. When Giorgi crushed a cross-court backhand off the sideline, half the crowd seem to hold its breath—while her father, Sergio, ran from his seat to near the photo pit to inspect the mark—then rejoiced when the shot was ruled good for match point.
The slender 22-year-old must learn to play the score with more care and select shots with more subtlety rather than resorting to blasting her way out of problems. But Giorgi is fearless, formidable when she's connecting, and is now 4-2 vs. Top 10 opponents, including an upset of Maria Sharapova at Indian Wells.
You can understand why she's becoming a fan favorite. In this age of screaming baseline bashers, the 5'6" Giorgi glides around the court barely emitting a sound, but can crack the ball into the corners off both wings and has surprising sting on her serve. After upsetting Caroline Wozniacki at the 2013 U.S. Open, Giorgi summed up her mindset simply: “My instinct is just to hit the ball and go for the lines to handle the nerves."
Next up is American qualifier Christina McHale, who led Sharapova 4-1 in the third set in Madrid last week before bowing.
Serving down break point at 3-all in the decider, Seppi was waiting for the home crowd to quiet when hit with a second time violation by chair umpire Fergus Murphy, resulting in a second serve. Haas, who won 12 of 21 points played on the Italian's second serve in the third set, took advantage, driving an inside-out forehand winner to secure the key break for a 4-3 lead.
The normally mild-mannered Seppi snapped, winding up and slamming his racquet to the court in anger while the crowd protested with whistling and chanting. Seppi never recovered as Haas won eight of the next nine points to seal a 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory. A stewing Seppi declined to shake Murphy's hand after the match.
Playing catch-up the entire match, Czech qualifier Petra Cetkovska pulled off the comeback of the day in a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 upset of seventh-seeded Angelique Kerber. Mixing deep forehand drives and a devious slice backhand to the German's forehand, Cetkovska stormed back from a one-break deficit in the second set and was twice a break down in the third, but defended with tenacity to deflate Kerber.
The 2012 Rome semifinalist seemed to be in command when up 4-3, 40-0 in the third set, but the 69th-ranked Czech dug in and won four points in a row, including a mad scramble to reach a drop shot that set up her smash to break for 4-all.
Kerber walked around the baseline muttering "40-Love, 40-Love" after losing the lead, briefly hanging her head in misery. Then, with rain starting to fall and dozens of umbrellas opened in the crowd, Cetkovska hit a slick backhand drop shot winner to hold for 5-4. She used the slice to coax another forehand error from Kerber, converting her second match point and gaining a measure of retribution.
Kerber had dropped just two games to Cetkovska in two prior WTA meetings, including a 6-1, 6-0 quarterfinal thrashing in Doha in February. Cetkovska is now 13-13 against Top 20 opponents.
Aiming to extend his title run in the Eternal City, reigning champion Rafael Nadal warmed up for Rome with some pre-tournament racing.
The seven-time Rome champion typically looks more comfortable on Rome's red clay, where he's surrendered just two sets in the last two years, than the higher altitude and faster track of Madrid. Six of the seven years Nadal has won Rome, he's gone on to rule Roland Garros.
See Wednesday’s Order of Play here.
(7) Andy Murray vs. Marcel Granollers: The Wimbledon champion tries to rebound from the straight-sets shellacking Santiago Giraldo administered last week. This could be another danger match: Granollers won their most recent clay-court clash when Murray retired after the second set in Rome last year. But since reaching the Casablanca final last month, the 31st-ranked Spaniard is 2-4.
(1) Serena Williams vs. Andrea Petkovic: The world No. 1 has more weapons and scored a 6-2, 3-6, 6-0 win over Petkovic in Rome four years ago, but will her mobility be impaired by the left thigh injury that forced her to withdraw from Madrid? Petkovic is one of the fittest woman in the game and won Charleston on Har-Tru last month, but since then she's won one clay-court match.
(6) Jelena Jankovic vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Margins can be miniscule when the former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion meet. They have split their six career meetings as well as two meetings in Rome: JJ beat Sveta in the 2007 Rome final before the Russian avenged that loss with a 2009 quarterfinal win. Kuznetsova owns more variety and a bigger serve and forehand, but Jankovic is the smoother mover, a more accurate returner, and more dangerous off the two-handed backhand.
Ever wonder exactly what happens to tournament champions right after they raise their title trophies in Rome?
Check out this behind-the-scenes view of 2013 champions Serena and Rafa—and crank up the David Bowie classic that's a fitting tribute anthem: