The clay season just felt like another procession for Rafael Nadal, with the Spaniard sweeping all titles on his way to another victory in Paris. However, Nadal did finally suffer a loss and now must win the title in Rome to retake his World No.1 ranking that is lost on Monday to Roger Federer.
Nadal had picked up titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona before bumping into Dominic Thiem, who ended a Nadal clay streak for the second year running. This one had spanned 21 matches and 50 sets, the latter being a record for consecutive sets won on one surface. If Nadal wants to avenge that loss, he will have the opportunity in the quarter finals where the pair are slated to meet once more. Before that Nadal should get to extend his 17-3 record over Fernando Verdasco while an in-form Denis Shapovalov may well fancy his chances of getting a crack at Nadal in round three. The Madrid semi finalist plays Tomas Berdych in a winnable round one match. Berdych lost his first matches in Monte Carlo and Madrid to Kei Nishikori and Richard Gasquet respectively.
Dominic Thiem will go into Rome full of confidence, regardless of his performance in Sunday’s Madrid final against Alexander Zverev. His win earlier in the week saw him become one of a few players to have multiple clay court wins over Nadal. Fabio Fognini or Gael Monfils will be first up for him although those matchups look tougher on paper than they may turn out to be in reality. The other seed that Thiem could face before Nadal is Sam Querrey. Querrey has played just one clay match this year, losing to Guido Pella in three sets last month in Houston.
Novak Djokovic is still struggling to get back to the top, posting another less than stellar outing in Madrid. A win against Kei Nishikori suggested he may be on an upswing, only for him to lose another three setter to exit a tournament – this time coming against Kyle Edmund. Alexander Dolgopolov then a qualifier may allow him to ease into the tournament before a third round with John Isner. Isner was dominant on serve in Madrid before his eventual exit and would be an interesting test for Djokovic in his current shape.
Grigor Dimitrov lost his opener in Madrid to Milos Raonic and is in danger of doing so again with another top player returning to his best slated for a second round match up with him. Nishikori will meet the Bulgarian there should he defeat Feliciano Lopez in round one. Jack Sock is another seed who looks vulnerable and may well lose to David Ferrer in round one or Philipp Kohlschreiber in round two.
Stanislas Wawrinka makes his return to the tour after 3 months out. His initial return after a fairly lengthy absence post-Wimbledon did not go too well with three losses coming against players outside the top 100. He may well find it tough to get to grips with the clay right away although there are tougher unseeded opponents than Steve Johnson for him to face. Fresh off a semi final in Madrid, Kevin Anderson will be confident while Pablo Carreno Busta should have the opportunity to face Anderson for the third time this year as 10th seed. They split three setters in Indian Wells and Miami but the Spaniard should have the advantage on clay.
After not competing in Madrid, fourth seed Marin Cilic should be fresh coming into the event. The draw is far from brutal for Cilic, who should have one of his better opportunities to make a Masters 1000 semi final on clay for the first time. He is currently 0-5 in quarter finals on the surface, losing three in Monte Carlo and two in Rome. Diego Schwartzman is the first likely contender for him in round three. Schwartzman lost a respectable 6-4 6-4 to Nadal in Madrid, one of the better results for players who have lost to him during the winning streak.
Playing in the Madrid open final today, Alexander Zverev is bound to go into Rome full of confidence whether he defeats Dominic Thiem or not. The German won Rome last year, impressively beating Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the final. A return to form definitely puts the No.2 seed as the most likely choice to advance to the final from the bottom half of the draw. Lucas Pouille is the projected third round opponent for him but the Frenchman is currently 0-3 on clay this year and may be vulnerable against Kyle Edmund, fresh off wins against David Goffin and Novak Djokovic in Madrid.
Juan Martin Del Potro and David Goffin cap off the seeds in the draw. Del Potro might have fancied his chances as a contender last week in Madrid only for a three set loss to Dusan Lajovic to send him back down to earth. He gained some much needed rest after a month off prior to the tournament but now needs to get back into slam shape with Roland Garros just a few weeks a way. Borna Coric is a tough potential opener for him with the Croatian playing well right now – he served for the match against Dominic Thiem before losing in three sets. Goffin failed to back up his Barcelona semi final in Madrid, losing early to Kyle Edmund.
Prediction – Rafael Nadal defeats Alexander Zverev in the final