The fifth Masters 1000 event of the year (and the third and final one of the clay court season) is here and the excitement level going into the tournament couldn't be higher.
Roger Federer showed true grit and adaptability to claim the Madrid Masters—played this year on the much-maligned blue clay—Rafael Nadal was surpassed in the world rankings by the Switzerland native and both he and Novak Djokovic were dumped out of the Madrid by fellow countrymen Fernando Verdasco and Janko Tipsarevic, respectively.
Twenty-three of the top 25 players in the world will participate in the Rome tournament, with world No. 4 Andy Murray returning to the scene of his epic match-of-the-year-worthy semifinal performance against Novak Djokovic last year.
It was hard to pick a winner in Madrid; Rome is even more open.
It is next to impossible to make judgement calls about Novak Djokovic's form without reference to his stellar 2011, and given his brilliance last year, it's a pity that what is already a fine 2012 will be inevitably be undermined by the what was a magnificent 2011.
The Serbian world No. 1 is always a threat wherever he goes, but there is no doubt that his form has dipped of late. Uncharacteristic losses to Tipsarevic, and others to the likes of Nadal and Murray have highlighted the mental and physical lapses that are to be expected following his exploits last year. A favorite to reach the final, no doubt—but not my favorite to win.
There is a bit of doubt about Federer's participation in the Rome Masters. Reports of injury and tiredness have surfaced but no official word is out. Very few would have picked Federer to win Madrid at the start of last week, and I think even fewer will pick him to win Rome.
In a previous article, I said that if you could win Madrid, you could win anywhere. Well, play or not play, Federer is as prepared as he's ever going to be for the French Open.
Petulant, childish, overbearing, brooding...say what you want about Nadal, but he's my pick for the Rome title.
The Spaniard was spared a potentially tricky match against player of the moment, Canada's Milos Raonic, who lost to Germany's Florian Mayer. However, in Mayer, Nadal faces an opponent whose game is oil to Nadal's water. With the trickier half of the draw, the second-seeded Nadal may have to get past Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer or Andy Murray if he is to win. Hard to envy him.
The select best players in the world outside of the big four, in my opinion—Juan Martin Del Potro, Gilles Simon and David Ferrer—are, as always, my dark horses for the tournament. Andy Murray hasn't really had much of a clay court season, but he shouldn't be counted out. Tomas Berdych, the losing finalist in Madrid, is another player who may pose a threat. However, unlike blue clay, the red clay will propose an altogether harder challenge for him.
If the Rome tournament of this year is anything like last year's, we will be in for a treat. Even if that doesn't materialize, let us at the very least be thankful that clay court tennis is over its blues.