The timing of last week’s event in Kitzbuhel – or more specifically the fact that qualies hadn’t finished until several main draw matches had already been completed – really made it tough for outright punters.
I said in my Kitzbuhel preview that this tournament was likely to be a good one for qualifiers, but we couldn’t get any prices on them due to the scheduling of the event and the one I mentioned as a possibility, Yannick Hanfmann, I deemed too short at 22-1, so he went and made the final.
Of course, five of the eight quarter finalists were from the qualifying draw and for the first time ever at an ATP Tour event three of the four semi finalists were qualifiers (was almost all four), but we had little chance of backing any of them, which is incredibly frustrating.
Conditions and trends
There won’t be any fans at the Foro Italico this year for the Rome Masters, which is a shame because the atmosphere there is usually great, especially on Pietrangeli, but it might be a bit flat this year, sadly.
This event is usually held in week 20 in May when it can be reasonably quick during the day session (depending on the weather) but much slower at night when it gets cold, and this year it’ll be much the same, as it’s expected to be hot this week in Rome.
The forecast says to expect highs of between 32C and 35C from Sunday to Thursday in Rome, so we’ll probably see a few more tie breaks than the layers perhaps expect this week – Rome features almost as many (2% fewer) breakers as altitude events such as Madrid and Sao Paulo on average anyway.
Number one seeds don’t have a great record here in recent times, with the top seed winning the title only twice in the last decade and qualifiers usually don’t fare well here either, with only Lucas Pouille (as a lucky loser) in 2016 making it past round three from the qualifying draw since 2009.
Maybe they’ll fare better this year, with many main draw players this week playing their first matches on clay for over 12 months.
Now that Alexander Zverev has made a major final we can say that the last man to make the Rome final that didn’t go on to either win a major or make the final of one was Felix Mantilla back in 2003, so it’s not often a tournament for surprises.
The draw – top half
Novak Djokovic has a good record here, with four titles and five runner-up finishes in his career, but I wonder how he’ll react to that stunning default at the US Open?
I expect it’ll be a positive reaction from the Serb, who has only once lost in Rome to an opponent who failed to make a major final in their career. That man? Fernando Verdasco back in 2010.
His draw has a few potential tricky points in it, with Stan Wawrinka, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Filip Krajinovic, Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils and Alex De Minaur all in his immediate section, but you’d think only peak level Wawrinka could beat Djokovic, assuming he doesn’t have a US Open hangover.
Wawrinka will be more attuned to clay than most of the rest of the field, having played back-to-back weeks at Challenger level on the dirt rather than make the trip to New York, but he withdrew from the second week in Prague with a thigh injury and he had to go the distance in four of his five matches when he won the first Prague Challenger, so for me Stan will just be one of those that I hope might beat Djokovic this week.
Monfils also falls into that category, with Lamonf having started the season really well, winning back-to-back titles at main level for the first time in his career in February, but he hasn’t played for a long time and who knows how fit he is at the moment.
If Djokovic does lose early on (he’s never failed to make at least the last eight in Rome so far) one that could take advantage at a big price is Cristian Garin, whose clay stats are very good indeed lately.
Garin is 10-1 win/loss in his last 11 main level matches on clay, with a hold/break total of almost 111, so he has a definite chance of winning Q2 against Matteo Berrettini (who Garin beat in the Munich final on clay last season), David Goffin (who’s also only lost to major finalists in his Rome career), Karen Khachanov, Marin Cilic, Jan-Lennard Struff, Borna Coric, Taylor Fritz and Casper Ruud.
That’s not the best quality quarter and on clay Garin, who admitted he’s struggled to cope with the new protocols and lack of crowds so far since the resumption of the tour, could take advantage.
He’s certainly got every chance of beating Coric in round one, having beaten Coric comfortably on clay back in February (should also have beaten him on grass, but for a fairly epic choke) and with comfortably better stats on this surface. His price of 100-1 is tempting, but I’m not wild about the one-third the odds on the each-way, so I’ll pass.
Goffin looks the next best in this quarter ahead of Berrettini, who hasn’t shown that he’s able to handle the pressure of playing at home at main level yet, although no crowd may help in that regard.
As I said above, Goffin usually goes well here, but he’s usually played three or four clay events in the lead-up to Rome, while this time he’s coming off a run to the fourth round on hard in the US, so we’ll see how he handles it this time.
He is a former Monte-Carlo semi finalist and with that event usually the first that he plays on the dirt in the season it serves as an example of how he could potentially go well right away on this surface.
Goffin has beaten Khachanov three times from four in their career series and he’s preferred to the Russian, but Goffin has let me down so many times at the highest level that I’d want a bigger price than 50-1 or so really.
No bet for me in the top half, then, with the 100-1 about Garin the best of the bunch.
The draw – bottom half
This half looks interesting, given that Rafael Nadal hasn’t played competitive tennis since February and that in this clay swing last year he didn’t make the final of any of his first three tournaments (Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid).
The Monte-Carlo loss to Fabio Fognini was one of the poorest matches I’ve seen Nadal play and it could easily be the case that the King of Clay could take a few weeks to get back to his best form after such a long lay off.
There are a few players in this bottom half of the draw that could potentially beat Nadal this week and they include Fognini, Stefanos Tsitsipas (both of whom beat Rafa pre-French Open last year) and possibly Diego Schwartzman, Andrey Rublev or Pablo Carreno Busta, the latter in round one.
I fully expect PCB to roll over for Nadal in round one given that he has an ‘oven ready’ excuse on hand in the form of an exhausting US Open run and a bad back, but in conditions that are going to be hot and lively Milos Raonic could cause a problem or two for Nadal.
That could well be a night match though, in which case Raonic would have little hope, but Tsitsipas did beat Nadal on clay (admittedly at slight altitude in Madrid) last season, so the Greek looks the most likely to potentially beat him again.
Rafa got his revenge over Tsitsipas pretty quickly after Madrid by beating Tsitsipas here in Rome in a night match (a couple of days after play was rained off for the day) and that’s the worry for me, with Tsitsipas’ win over Nadal in Madrid coming in a day match when it’s obviously quicker.
The hot conditions expected all week in Rome this year would give Tsitsipas a shot against Rafa in a day match, but we’re guessing as to when that match would be scheduled.
Tsitsipas may take time to get over an awful US Open defeat to Borna Coric that should never have happened, but assuming he approaches this week with the right attitude his stats on clay are decent (110 hold/break total in his last 10 main level matches, two of which were against Nadal, one versus Djokovic and another against Federer) and the pace of the clay gives him every chance of toppling a rusty Nadal.
The first match probably won’t be easy though, with Jannik Sinner a probable opening round opponent for Tsitsipas and we know what the young Italian can do, plus he’ll be fired up for his one playing at home.
Tsitsipas beat Sinner in the same round last year, so hopefully he can repeat that result again, but it’ll probably be closer this time.
My other fancy in this section is Andrey Rublev at 50-1 or so and the Russian is preferred to Schwartzman, who has looked very much out of sorts in his few matches so far since the hiatus.
A poor US Open loss for Schwartzman was combined with another weak showing at a European ATP 250 on clay when he just scraped past Sebastian Ofner before going down in straight sets to Laslo Djere in Kitzbuhel.
Schwartzman may go better this week (he made the Rome semis last season after being crushed by Jeremy Chardy in Madrid) but I at a bigger price I prefer the look of Rublev, who was unlucky to lose the opening set of his US Open quarter final against Daniil Medvedev last week.
Had he won that he may well have made the semis and if he can overcome the travelling and change of surfaces (he faces a qualifier in round one) he’s shown he can go well on clay in the past – notably when we had him at 50-1 in Hamburg last year and he lost in the final set of the final, having beaten Dominic Thiem.
The quicker than normal Rome conditions this week should suit and it’s a case of how well he adapts to the clay, but his backhand looked good in New York, which is a plus for him.
Of the rest of the bottom half, Fognini looked miles off the pace in Kitzbuhel and likely needs matches, while Grigor Dimitrov hasn’t won a match in his last five appearances in Rome and looks nowhere near fit enough after contracting coronavirus in the summer.
It’s usually a thankless task trying to take on Rafael Nadal on clay or Novak Djokovic here in Rome, but we have to in these circumstances whereby Rafa hasn’t played for such a long time and Djokovic is switching to clay from hard.
For me, in the absence of Dominic Thiem this week, the best placed one looks to be Tsitsipas, who I’ll take to win this at 14-1, with Rublev my 50-1 back-up.