The heat has truly been turned up during the clay court season, as the players head into the Rome Masters and the second most important clay court title.
The Rome Masters is held in the middle of the clay court season, and hence, acts as the perfect dress rehearsal for the French Open. It isn't so early that things may dramatically change heading into Paris, nor too late that players might back out to reduce the risk of exhaustion.
The tournament cannot have occurred at a better time of the year. Apart from Rafael Nadal, who is oddly not the defending champion, every player has lots at stake in this tournament.
While the top two players are sure to keep their rankings intact, it is almost inevitable that the next two will swap their places. The only way this wouldn't happen would be if Murray exits without winning a match and Djokovic’s successful retention of the title. For the record, the Serbian has not yet managed to defend any title successfully—perhaps he'll slay his demons here?
The World No. 2, Roger Federer, seems to have fully utilized the time off after an early exit in Monte Carlo. He looks in high spirits after some intense practice sessions in unknown Italian Hills, and hopefully we would witness the return of his precise first serves and booming forehands.
While Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would like to improve upon their woeful start to the season, Andy Roddick would receive a surprise honeymoon present after his return, as he is almost sure to be overtaken by Simon and Verdasco. This means that Roddick would barely claim his place in the top eight of the world, and would have to perform exceedingly well later in the season to ensure his place in the Masters Cup for the sixth time.
Gael Monfils, who will miss Rome for the second straight year, continues to struggle with his knee, and runs the risk of moving outside the top ten and being overtaken by the crowd-favorite Tsonga, and the ever consistent Russian Davydenko.
Finally, this event would be a mixed bag for the Argentineans, as Del Potro still needs to figure out this surface and David Nalbandian misses out due to injury. Will we ever see this highly talented professional produce results?
Draws: Quarter One
There are various players in Rafa’s draw to watch out for, including his fellow countryman Almagro, and the exciting Frenchman, Gasquet. The first round match between Tsonga and Gasquet promises to be a dramatic one.
Overall, it should be a smooth ride for Rafael Nadal until the semifinals. There is no intimidating opponent apart from Fernando Verdasco and Jo Wilfried Tsonga. Both of them have troubled him in the past. In fact, Tsonga even pushed out the champion out of Melbourne last year, but clay is a different surface altogether.
Andy Murray is still finding his feet on clay, despite his courageous second set performance against Nadal in Monte Carlo. His road to the semifinals would be tougher, as he may have to deal with Nikolay Davydenko, who is always a handy player on dirt, or Gonzales, who troubled David Ferrer last week in Barcelona.
Juan Martin Del Potro figures at the top of this draw, with Djokovic at the bottom. Few would give a chance to Del Potro on his least favored surface. The unpredictable Russian Safin also features in this draw, but after watching him gift wrap the Monte Carlo encounter to Lapentti, it would be false optimism to expect more from the former World No. 1.
Should things go according to plan, the Swiss No. 2, Wawrinka, would have a chance to avenge his semifinal defeat against Djokovic, in a possible re-match of the Monte Carlo semis. The previous encounter went the distance, and expecting anything less would be akin to blasphemy.
This is the most unpredictable draw for the tournament, and is sure to feature the maximum number of upsets.
The Barcelona Open finalist, David Ferrer, should be in for serious contests from Thomas Berdych and Gilles Simon. At the same time, Federer will face a tricky opening match with Karlovic, who has always troubled the Swiss Master with his huge serves. On clay, however, this should be less of an issue, and one would expect Federer to cruise through. The other player is Radek Stepanek, who proudly upset the Fed Express at the same venue. There is also a small matter of the Spaniard Feliciano Lopez trickling with in an upset or two.
All in all, Federer is still the favorite to make the semis, despite stiff opposition from Ferrer or Simon.
The first half of the encounter looks straightforward, with Nadal facing either Davydenko or Murray. Andy Murray has already troubled Nadal, specifically towards the end of the second set in Monte Carlo, and should he reach the semis here, expect another nerve cracking contest. At the end of the day, however, do not expect anybody to stop the Clay Machine.
The second half promises to exciting, with anybody from Djokovic, Wawrinka, Federer, Ferrer, or Simon to break through. Djokovic and Federer are still the best bets, but predicting anything further is inviting trouble.
Regardless of the second finalist, expect Nadal to bite his 15th Masters trophy on the Third of May.
Overall, Rome Masters will be an exciting tournament with lots of ups and downs for players, and yielding exciting results.
So, gear up as the clay season heads slowly towards Paris.