Nadal, Djokovic, Thiem: Will a French Open favorite emerge from Rome?

Nadal, Djokovic, Thiem: Will a French Open favorite emerge from Rome?

Previewing this week's Rome Masters, which includes Roger Federer.

By this point in the clay season, the men’s favorite for the French Open has typically been decided, and it’s typically been Rafael Nadal. That’s not true this year. Nadal’s three semifinal defeats on dirt this spring have left Roland Garros looking more open—at least to a few other players, such as Madrid champion Novak Djokovic and Barcelona champ Dominic Thiem. Can Nadal reassert his authority in Rome, or will someone else throw his hat in the Roland Garros ring this week? Here’s a look ahead at the ATP draw at the Foro Italico.

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First Quarter

The Madrid-Rome double is a tough one; even Nadal has only pulled it off twice. Djokovic has done it once, in 2011, when he beat Rafa in back-to-back finals. The last time the Serb won in Madrid, in 2016, he lost in the final in Rome to Andy Murray, before beating the Scot in the French final three weeks later. So a loss this week wouldn’t detract from Novak’s chances in Paris.

Djokovic likes the Foro; he has a 46-8 record there, and has won the event four times. This year he’ll start against either Pablo Carreño Busta or Denis Shapovalov, and the three seeds in his quarter are Juan Martin del Potro, Daniil Medvedev and Marco Cecchinato. Medvedev handed Djokovic a loss in Monte Carlo last month, and Cecchinato did the same at Roland Garros last year.

First-round matches to watch:

—Medvedev vs. Nick Kyrgios

—Stan Wawrinka vs. David Goffin. The winner will play Delpo.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

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Second Quarter

In Madrid, Alexander Zverev said he’s getting a little better every week, and joked that he should be “perfect” by the time he gets to Paris. He has indeed been taking small steps forward this spring, but he may want to speed up the process this week: He’s defending runner-up points in Rome, and he has a dangerous opener, against young Italian Matteo Berrettini.

Also in this section:

—Kei Nishikori, who has been to the quarters or better in Rome three times

—Gael Monfils, who was a point away from beating Roger Federer last week.

Semifinalist: Zverev

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Third Quarter

Speaking of Federer, he’s turned himself into the clay season’s wild card—at first glance, a second title in Paris would seem unlikely at age 37, but since February, he’s played as well as anyone else on tour. As far as Rome goes, Federer has reached the final four times, and had match points in one of them, but it’s the rare title that has eluded him. Federer made a last-minute decision to play, so he’s clearly feeling good; he’ll open against either Frances Tiafoe or Joao Sousa.

Did Stefanos Tsitsipas make you a believer in his French Open chances this past week? It doesn’t get much more promising than a win over Nadal in Madrid, but he’s probably a year or two away from challenging for the title in Paris. In Rome, he’ll start again an Italian teen with a memorable name, Jannik Sinner, and a memorable look; his wild red hair calls to mind a young John McEnroe.

First-round matches to watch:

—Borna Coric vs. Felix Auger-Aliassime

—Fabio Fognini vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Fognini is just 10-11 on his home-country courts, but he did reach the quarterfinals last year.

Semifinalist: Coric

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Fourth Quarter

Talk about a match with ramifications: Nadal and Thiem, two of the top three favorites in Paris, are scheduled to square off the quarterfinals here. Thiem has already beaten Rafa this spring, in Barcelona, which means a rematch would likely mean more to Nadal. Another loss to the Austrian and we might actually start to fear for his chances at Roland Garros.

First things first, though: Nadal will start against either Jeremy Chardy or Richard Gasquet; Thiem will get the winner of the first-rounder between Fernando Verdasco and Kyle Edmund.

Semifinalist: Thiem

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Semifinals: Djokovic d. Zverev; Thiem d. Coric

Final: Thiem d. Djokovic