The Internatzionali BNL d'Italia, a.k.a. the 2013 Rome Masters, wrapped up on Sunday with what we'll simply call familiar results. As with Madrid the week before, Rafael Nadal smoked a Swiss finalist following an early departure by Novak Djokovic, while Serena Williams destroyed a high seed on the women's side. That said, there was plenty to learn over the course of the week, even if we didn't "learn" some of the points below (because we already knew them).
15-0. This Nadal guy might be a name to watch at the French Open (#HotSportsOpinions)
We expected it, of course, but Rafael Nadal just continued to lay waste to the rest of men's tennis on the clay. He was challenged in the early rounds -- the maddening Ernests Gulbis took a set from him (6-1, no less) in the third round, and he had to survive another three-set blood bath versus David Ferrer in the quarterfinals; but when the trophy was in site, Nadal went from fourth gear to fifth and cruised past all challengers. Tomas Berdych, fresh off an upset of Novak Djokovic, won just six games in the semifinals. Roger Federer, a pretty good tennis player (another hot sports take), won four in the finals.
On both hard court and grass, men's tennis is fascinating. Novak Djokovic breaks through, then breaks through again. Roger Federer figures out a way to claw back to the top of the rankings. Andy Murray puts all of the pieces together. Juan Martin del Potro gets healthy and starts to figure everything out again. When healthy, Nadal makes a charge. And then Djokovic breaks through again. There are plot twists and changes in the hierarchy, and for three seasons out of the year (winter, summer, fall), it stays that way. But in the spring, when the tournaments are played on clay, everything is nearly pre-ordained. Even coming off a knee injury, Nadal quickly found his rhythm. He lost to Horacio Zeballos in the finals of his first tournament back from injury, won his next three tournaments, lost to Djokovic at Monte Carlo, and has now cruised through his final three French Open tune-ups. He is ridiculous on the red stuff. He stands behind the baseline, paints the corners, pins you deep, and doesn't allow you an opportunity to generate any offense whatsoever. And he's absurdly consistent. It's not fair.
15-all. That said … come on
I've seen it floating around on Twitter quite a few times in recent weeks: Is Nadal's comeback from a knee injury the greatest tennis comeback ever? It is an obvious, desperate conversation starter, but it should be no conversation. He wasn't stabbed on the court. He didn't get hit by a limo. He got tendinitis in his knee and needed to rest for a while. We don't need to Hollywood-ize this for it to still be really impressive.
30-15. Get it together, Nola
I'd love to see the other 126 players get paid and just have Rafa and Nole do a best-of-seven series at the French. Who is in?— Chris Oddo (@TheFanChild) May 19, 2013
David Ferrer consistently challenges Rafael Nadal but can't seem to survive past two sets before collapsing in the third. So basically, Nadal's only two challenging opponents over the course of five sets are Djokovic and himself. If he is dialed in, he can only be taken down by Djokovic, the best defender in the world. Djokovic beat him, 6-2, 7-6, in Monte Carlo, but he has fallen into a mini-slump in recent weeks. Monte Carlo is the only title he has secured in his last five tournaments -- he lost to del Potro in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells, lost to Tommy Haas in the fourth round in Miami, was stunned by Grigor Dimitrov in the second round at Madrid, and fell to Berdych in the semifinals in Rome. None of these losses are particularly shameful; even Dimitrov is a rising star with a big game. But that he has lost all of these matches suggests that he is not in complete control of his game at the moment. Over five sets, he is nearly impossible to beat, but his mortality in three-set matches is alarming. The only drama on the men's side, the only thing that can overcome a Nadal onslaught and an easy eighth French Open title for the Spaniard, is Novak Djokovic bringing his A-game in the semifinals or finals.
(By the way ... come on, ATP and Roland Garros. Yes, Nadal is back in the ATP top 4, and yes, he will therefore get a top 4 seed. But he's the best clay court player in the world. By far. Even if you want to give Djokovic the No. 1 seed (which would be totally understandable), Nadal should get, at worst, the No. 2, rankings be damned. If we are subjected to a Djokovic-Nadal semifinal instead of final, it will be a ridiculous blown opportunity. I realize you typically adhere pretty closely to the ATP rankings, but the ATP rankings are flawed. Give him the 2.)
30-all. We probably shouldn't crown Serena just yet
Serena Williams was even more dominant on the women's side than Nadal was on the men's. That's been the story for most of the clay court season. She dropped four games to Laura Robson in the second round, three combined to Dominika Cibulkova and Carla Suarez Navarro in the third round and quarterfinals, three to Simona Halep in the semifinals, and just four to Victoria Azareanka in the finals. She is playing as well as she ever has on clay. That's 14 games, barely two sets' worth, in five matches.
That said, she does have one more mental roadblock to clear before she becomes the far-and-away French Open favorite. Williams is capable of falling into her own head at times, and that was never more true than in her last trip to Roland Garros, when she fell in three sets to journeywoman Virginie Razzano. Until she shows that she can continue playing loose and relaxed upon her return to Paris, her path will be at least a little bit cluttered.
(Okay, that's all hooey. It's possible that the women's tournament ends even more anti-climactically than the men's -- more so, even, because of what is likely going to be a vast number of early-round upsets of seeded players who have stunk on clay this year. But that's depressing. So please allow me to believe there will be some drama in the later rounds. Give me that.)
40-30. Upsets in name only
For the second straight tournament, a majority of the top players in the women's draw failed to even come close to living up to their seeding. No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 11 Nadia Petrova, and No. 15 Ana Ivanovic (who I proclaimed was turning a corner just a week ago) all fell in the first round. No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska fell in the second. No. 5 Li Na and No. 8 Petra Kvitova lost in the third round (though at least Kvitova did fall to No. 9 Sam Stosur). Throw in No. 3 Maria Sharapova withdrawing due to illness before the quarterfinals and No. 6 Angelique Kerber withdrawing before the tournament started, and you end up with only three of the top eight seeds making the quarterfinals, and only two of the top four making the semis. Upsets are fun, but so are competitive late-round matches. In the semis, Williams erased qualifier Simona Halep, while Azarenka easily handled 2012 French finalist Sara Errani. That's not very fun. The best tournaments have a mix of upsets and late-round, heavyweight battles. On clay, it's often much more of the former than the latter. It's shaping up to be much of the same at Roland Garros.
Deuce. Benoit Paire and Simona Halep had themselves a week
That said, an underdog run or two is never a bad thing, as long as there's a cap on them. Benoit Paire, the No. 46 player in May's Advanced Baseline rankings (No. 29 on clay), certainly earned his semifinal money in Rome. He took out Juan Monaco (No. 11 on clay) in three sets in the first round, knocked off Julian Benneteau (7-6 in the third) in the second round, handled del Potro (No. 5 on clay) in straight sets, and almost double-bageled Marcel Granollers (No. 27 on clay) in the quarters before falling, 7-6, 6-4, to Federer in the semis. The run bumped him from 36th to 26th in the ATP rankings and likely secured the Frenchman a seed at Roland Garros. (The French men, by the way, have put together an impressive 2013 campaign thus far. Heading to their home slam, up to six -- Jo-Willie Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon, Paire, Jeremy Chardy, and Benneteau -- could get seeded in the top 32.)
Halep, meanwhile, had to qualify to make the field at all. But once in, she was dominant. She destroyed 2009 French Open champ (and comeback kid) Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round, dropped just three games in the final two sets in upsetting Radwanska, lost six games to Roberta Vinci in the third round, and survived Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals. Serena Williams disposed of her quite easily in the semifinals, but there is no shame in that. The run gave her a 20-spot bump in the WTA rankings, from 64th to 44th.
Ad. Laura Robson might be figuring out the clay
With runs to the fourth round at the U.S. Open and the third round at the Australian Open, the 19-year old Brit has been making a name for herself of late. But she lost seven of nine WTA matches following the Aussie, and as her Advanced Baseline rankings -- 53rd overall, 97th on clay -- suggest, she is still a work in progress, especially on clay. But her showing at Madrid and Rome suggested that might be changing. She whipped fourth-seed Radwanska, 6-3, 6-1, in Madrid and barely fell (7-6 in the third) to Ivanovic. Then, in Rome, she crushed Venus Williams, 6-3, 6-2, before running into the Serena buzzsaw. The idea of the Advanced Baseline rankings is to remove luck-of-the-draw from the equation a bit. Robson's draws in both Madrid and Rome were unfavorable, but she fared quite well. A nicer draw in Paris could lead to a third straight quality slam.
Game. The Andy Murray region might have indirectly gotten harder
I mentioned last week that Andy Murray is barely a Top 10 player on clay and that anybody landing in his quadrant of the men's draw (since he was still all but guaranteed of a Top 4 seed) would be licking their chops and envisioning a semifinal run. Well, that before he suffered a back injury and withdrew from a match with Granollers (on his birthday, no less). Down big in the second set, he made a furious comeback, beat Granollers in a tie-breaker, and then retired. Turns out, he's been suffering from a nagging injury for a while and aggravated it on the clay. He will decide on Wednesday whether he's able to play the French Open at all.
While Murray's withdrawal might seem like a good thing for underdogs, it's really not. If Murray's out, then Ferrer, currently No. 5 in the world (though easily a Top 3 player on clay; boo, ATP rankings) gets a Top 4 seed. And unlike Murray, Ferrer will likely live up to his seed. A Murray withdrawal would actually solidify the top seeds and make Federer the most ripe for an early upset. And you don't typically make much money betting on Federer to lose early in a slam. Without Murray, the most interesting part of the draw will probably be who draws the No. 5-8 spot opposite Federer (i.e. who might face Fed in the quarterfinals).