Rome, red clay, Rafa, the Foro Italico: These are age-old signs of spring in tennis. What will they be like in the fall? Players and fans will find out for the first time this week, as the tours head straight from New York to the Eternal City, and straight from asphalt to dirt.
No fans will be there to see it in person, of course, which is a bummer, because the Foro attracts some of the most spirited spectators in the world. But we will get a better look at the site’s sunken arenas in all of their Mussolini-era marble glory. It isn’t just the fans who will be absent. So will many top players, including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Ash Barty, and Bianca Andreescu.
Internazionali BNL d’Italia (ATP/WTA)
The headline event on the men’s side is obviously Rafa’s return. He’s a nine-time champion at the Foro, but considering that he’s won Roland Garros 12 times, you might be tempted to ask what’s gone wrong for him in Rome over the years. Never fear, he’s the two-time defending champion, and this year he’ll have a chance to add another La Décima to the ones he already has in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Paris.
That said, Nadal, the No. 2 seed after Novak Djokovic, has a tricky opener, against fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta. PCB was one set from reaching the US Open final on Friday. Also in Rafa’s half: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Fabio Fognini, Andrey Rublev, Diego Schwartzman, and Denis Shapovalov.
While Nadal will be making his post-lockdown debut, Djokovic will be trying to put the one he made in New York behind him. How will he bounce back from being defaulted from the US Open for hitting a line judge in the neck with a ball? Djokovic says he’s trying to come to grips with what happened, and it seems likely that we won’t see him any blast any balls around the arena in Rome. Will he be scarred by the Open experience, or motivated to leave it behind and stop Nadal from moving farther ahead of him in the Slam chase in Paris? The first seed Djokovic could face is Felix Auger-Aliassime. The highest seed in his half is Matteo Berrettini. This looks like a good draw for a man on the mental mend.
Question Mark: Stan Wawrinka. We know he can play on clay, and he reached the final in Rome way back in 2008. What kind of shape will Wawrinka, who chose to play Challengers in Europe rather than come to the States, be in this week? He could play Djokovic in the quarters.
First-round matches to watch: Nadal vs. Carreño Busta; Benoit Paire vs. Jannik Sinner; Auger-Aliassime vs. Filip Krajinovic; Americans in Rome: Taylor Fritz, Sam Querrey
This week the women lose two players who did well in New York, Osaka and Serena. But they pick up four Top Tenners who didn’t make the trip there—Halep, Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens, and Belinda Bencic.
Halep, a two-time Slam champion and two-time Rome runner-up, is the headline attraction. She won a title in Prague last month, but, like Nadal, she could have a tough start to her Rome campaign. She begins against Anastasija Sevastova or Italy’s Jasmine Paolini, and could face either Camila Giorgi, Dayana Yastremska, Amanda Anisimova or Donna Vekic in the following round.
Karolina Pliskova is the second seed, and the defending champion. That’s the good news. The bad news it that she has struggled so far in the reopening, losing in the first round at the Western and Southern Open and the second round at the US Open. Will a return to Europe and clay help her mood, or at least her game? The Czech will start against either Veronika Kudermetova or her countrywoman, Barbora Strycova. Kudermetova beat Pliskova in “Cincy” two weeks ago.
If you’re looking for a favorite in the bottom half of the draw, you might look toward Svitolina. She hasn’t played a match since March, but she won this event in 2017 and 2018. She’ll start against either Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Shuai Zhang.
First-round matches to watch (there are some good ones): Victoria Azarenka vs. Venus Williams; Garbine Muguruza vs. Sloane Stephens; Coco Gauff vs. Ons Jabeur; Anett Kontaveit vs. Caroline Garcia; Elise Mertens vs. Su-Wei Hsieh; Angelique Kerber vs. Katerina Siniakova; Elena Rybakina vs. Ekaterina Alexandrova; Vekic vs. Anisimova; Giorgi vs. Yastremska; Sevastova vs. Paolini