Road to Rogers Cup: Rafa sets the record straight

Wednesday, May 22

Welcome to Road to Rogers Cup, the weekly roundup of all the action on the ATP Tour ahead of the 2019 Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at IGA Stadium from August 2 to 11.

This week, we’re recapping the season’s fifth Masters 1000 event: the Internazionale BNL d’Italia in Rome.

Photo : Associated Press

Last week: Nadal adds to his legend

Rundown

To say that emotions ran high at Foro Italico last week would almost be a euphemism, as all the heavy hitters descended on Rome. Federer staged his return to the Italian capital; local hero Fabio Fognini found his way into the mix; Novak Djokovic was riding high after his win in Madrid; a corps of young guns led by Stefanos Tsitsipas was chomping at the bit and his Highness Rafael Nadal was out to reconquer his somewhat shaky clay court realm.

Roman fans were expecting fireworks and certainly weren’t disappointed when their very own Matteo Berrettini, who has been having a fantastic clay season thus far, condemned 2017 champion and 2018 finalist Alexander Zverev to an early exit.

But, in the end, it was Mother Nature who wreaked the most havoc. The rain washed out all play on Wednesday, turning the schedule upside down and guaranteeing that the last days of the tournament would be hectic.

The most direct outcome was Thursday’s double bill, whose takeaways were essentially that battle-ready Nadal was in it to win it with only two games lost in two matches against mere mortals Jérémy Chardy and Nikoloz Basilashvili; Djokovic was just as efficient in his matches against our Denis Shapovalov and Philipp Kohlschreiber and Federer came within one point of being shown the door by Borna Coric and followed up the win by withdrawing the very next day.

Other players squeaked through to the quarters. The rustproof Fernando Verdasco spent five hours toppling seeds Dominic Thiem and Karen Khachanov to come face to face with fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal, and Tsitsipas didn’t skip a beat as he continued his spring swing. Juan Martin del Potro was back in action and his successes—along with Diego Schwartzman’s—served as a reminder to never count out the Argentinian assembly at a clay court tournament. Delpo set himself up for a duel against Djokovic that would turn out to be THE match of the tournament.

To tell the truth, the first quarterfinal confrontations weren’t much to write home about. Federer gave Tsitsipas his ticket to the semis and Nadal bulldozed Verdasco.

In the top half of the draw, Schwartzman beat the odds with an easy win over Kei Nishikori and settled in to wait for his next opponent. The Djokovic-del Potro match only got underway after 10 p.m. In the thrilling three-hour nail-biter, the towering Argentinian came this close with two match points in the second set tiebreaker, but Nole said no and finally claimed victory in the wee hours of the morning (4-6, 7-6, 6-4).

Photo : Agencies

The semifinals looked a lot like the final four in Madrid, with Schwartzman filling in for Thiem. The other Argentinian fought hard against the World No.1, forcing a fraught third set. Under strain, Djokovic had to dig deep for his final berth and started showing signs that he may not be up for a clash with Rafa, who had coasted through the event. The court conditions were better suited to the Spaniard, but it was the demo work and lasso whip forehands he’d been unleashing all week that confirmed everyone’s initial impression that the King of Clay was at the top of his game.

And so, the Eternal City became the theater for the 54th head-to-head between the two great rivals. On the line was the record for the most Masters 1000 titles (equalled by Djokovic the week before) and a rematch of the final in Melbourne.

Regrettably, the hype faded quickly. Just as he had in all his previous matches, Rafa came on like gangbusters versus an apathetic Djokovic. Indeed, it was the first 0-6 in their history. The dice seemed loaded against the Djoker, whose body language and depressed backhands were no match for Nadal’s raw power and clinical precision. Djokovic’s surge in the second set (6-4) could have awakened some of Nadal’s old complexes, but the Matador thrashed his opponent (1-6) and raised the winner’s trophy. With Roland-Garros only a week away, the crown (his first of the season) places Rafa back at the top of the list of contenders for the 2019 Coupe des Mousquetaire, which, incredibly, would be his 12th!

For the record

  • Typical Kyrgios: An underarm serve to start the very first point of his opening round match against Daniil Medvedev, a few salty comments on the tournament’s two finalists, a chair-throwing temper tantrum and a disqualification. That pretty much sums Nick Kyrgios’ week in Rome.
  • Tough week for tournament organizers: Blasted by players (the loudest being Dominic Thiem) for poor scheduling after the lengthy rain delay, doubling ticket prices when Federer announced his return and not properly preparing the outer courts, organizers spent the week dodging criticism.
Photo : AFP/Andreas Solaro

Canadian contingent

Canadians pinned their hopes on two men in Rome, but Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov didn’t get past the early rounds. Auger-Aliassime fell in the first to Coric (15), and Shapovalov was ousted by Djokovic in the second. This week in Lyon, they’ll both be trying to capitalize on their first-round byes. Joining them in the main draw is Steven Diez, who played two brilliant qualifying rounds.

Speaking of qualifying rounds, Peter Polansky will be battling at Roland-Garros, which has always been a difficult undertaking for him.

On the Challenger circuit, keep an eye out for Brayden Schnur and Filip Peliwo in Jerusalem.

(Feature photo : Reuters)

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