Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and the Winners and Losers at 2014 Rome Masters

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMay 19, 2014

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and the Winners and Losers at 2014 Rome Masters

0 of 10

    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal for the 2014 Rome Masters title, but most importantly showed that he is healthy for a run at his first French Open title. Nadal knows he has work to do if he is to win one more title at Roland Garros.

    We will mention some of the top matches of the week and examine the most important effects. Which players took a leap, and who was ground down by disappointment?

    There are now five Masters 1000 tournaments in the rear-view mirror for 2014, and the next one will not come around until August. Meanwhile, the heart of the Grand Slam season is arriving as Paris and London take center stage. This is the time all players want to win the glory that will be remembered forever.

    Join in with a peek at Rome's "Winners and Losers." This is where we look at the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Winner: Exciting Matches at Rome

1 of 10

    Michael Regan/Getty Images

    There were plenty of interesting matches at the Italian Open.

    Who would have thought Ana Ivanovic would hammer Maria Sharapova's clay-court winning streak with near-perfect tennis?

    How about Sara Errani's big win over Li Na, something to give her home country a jolt of pride.

    And Serena Williams facing off against Ivanovic turned out to be a worthy semifinal.

    The ATP was more wild. Jeremy Chardy staved off match point and Roger Federer.

    Rafael Nadal played four three-set matches, including a thriller versus Andy Murray.

    Not to be outdone, Novak Djokovic outlasted four big challenges from Philipp Kohlschreiber, David Ferrer, Milos Raonic and Nadal.

    It was a true sampling of Italian tastes and entertainment leading up to the main course of the French Open at Roland Garros. Rome showed competitive balance, hungry challengers and championship heart. What else can we ask for in tennis?

Loser: Swiss Duo

2 of 10

    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    Last month's run to the Monte Carlo finals was a Swiss celebration. This week's early losses marked a Roman execution.

    We can better excuse Roger Federer's bleary-eyed return to tennis. His routines, practice and Madrid appearance was put aside for the birth of his twin sons. A three-set loss to No. 47 Jeremy Chardy was not entirely shocking, even if it left the Swiss Maestro "angry and frustrated."

    Wawrinka is proving to be more of a puzzle. Although he has captured two of the year's biggest titles, he fell flat at Madrid and Rome, the latest a three-set loss to Tommy Haas. Wawrinka cited back problems, but thinks the problem will go away with a few days of rest.

    The other problem for Wawrinka was 40 unforced errors, the tell-tale sign that he is struggling. It also tends to happen against opponents he should beat. How much pressure is there for him to believe he must be a super champion each time that he plays?

    Both players will look for better rhythm and optimum conditioning for Roland Garros.

Winner: Andy Murray vs. Rafael Nadal

3 of 10

    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    We would like to take a little credit for making this match happen. Last week, we lamented that Andy Murray had not faced Rafael Nadal in two-and-a-half years. It appears our reverse jinx worked. We got our match with the two facing off in the quarterfinals, and it was a good one.

    In the past, Nadal would have been a lock on clay. Given Andy Murray's struggles in 2014, Nadal still appeared to be the heavy favorite. But Murray roused up a spirited effort before falling short, 1-6, 6-3, 7-5.

    Murray was at his best in the first set, stepping inside the baseline and hitting several terrific shots with pace and purpose. It was a virtual simulation of Novak Djokovic's attacking best.

    Even after the inevitable Nadal comeback, Murray battled back and broke Nadal to hold a third-set lead at 4-2. Then he wore down, hitting a physical wall that left his shots a little weaker and shorter. "He was a little bit stronger than me at the end," Murray admitted in The Guardian. It was enough for the Spanish champion to take full advantage and close him out.

    Nadal had needed to change his tactics in the second set. In the first set, Nadal hit cross-court 79 percent of the time. In the second set, Nadal hit 58 percent of his shots up the line. Nadal also responded with several brilliant volleys. In the end, he nearly matched Murray's winners (26-30) but had far fewer unforced errors (22-41). Statistics were reported on-air by Sky Sports' telecast.

    In a week of exciting tennis, this was a fine way to renew the Nadal-Murray "mini-rivalry." Maybe we can expect continued improved play from both champions. If so, they could indeed meet more often this summer with bigger stakes on the line.

Loser: Grigor Dimitrov

4 of 10

    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Grigor Dimitrov vs. Rafael Nadal in the Rome semifinals was set up to be must-see TV: The talented Bulgarian potential star against the proud Spanish warrior. Even as they walked out to warm up, the original theme from Star Wars blared through the stately arena, promising a heroic battle.

    The match began and almost as quickly ended with a 6-2, 6-2 thrashing. Dimitrov was lifeless, feeble and finished.

    He checked out in every conceivable way. He lacked intensity. He tried for quick and ill-advised dropshots. He had no patience nor game plan. It was as if he were out to hit balls and nothing more. There was no thought process or attempt to make Nadal work, which should have at least been tested after the Spaniard's exhausting week of three-set matches.

    Technically, Dimitrov's backhand was weak. He is either unable or unwilling to hit the ball early with this swing, and he rolled over short topspin shot time and again to Nadal's wheelhouse. And Dimitrov kept retreating behind the baseline, which all but sealed his fate.

    Dimitrov wants to be a great player, and he is making modest progress. In the grand scheme of the week, he was a winner. He moved up to the No. 12 ranking. But his lack of readiness and competitiveness was as disappointing as the Burnt Bagel that he earned.

Winner: Milos Raonic

5 of 10

    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    He doesn't have Grigor Dimitrov's overall talent, but this week newly minted No. 9 Milos Raonic gets props for competing hard. The big-serving Canadian is known for dishing out aces, but he moved well and nearly pulled off a semifinal upset over Novak Djokovic, falling 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 6-3.

    Djokovic came away impressed, according to ATP World Tour:

    He did surprise me with his movement. He is moving really well and has improved his backhand down the line, especially. He comes to the net and has improved his variety.

    It is another step forward for Raonic, especially when big servers can be neutralized more on clay courts. More experience in big matches will only help as the French Open and Wimbledon approach. And maybe the latter tournament could see him boom his way to a shot at the title.

Loser: Maria Sharapova

6 of 10

    Michael Regan/Getty Images

    At least this week, we will have to concur with Maria Sharapova's self assessment: She is not the Queen of Clay.

    Give credit to Ana Ivanovic, who is having a strong year. Ivanovic hit tremendous shots with the kind of aggressiveness that handcuffed Sharapova for a 6-1, 6-4 victory and a spot in the quarterfinals. She was in the zone, something Sharapova acknowledged in, per Courtney Nguyen: "I thought Ana played a really great match. She came up with winners from all over the court, and she was the better player. That’s the bottom line."

    The subplot is that Sharapova did not get a chance to play Serena Williams in the semifinals.

    This is probably best for Sharapova's chances to possibly run through Serena for a French Open title. If Sharapova were to lose at Rome against Serena, it would have been another reminder of her misery in playing Serena, especially after the positive momentum of this year's 12-match winning streak on clay.

    Had Sharapova gone on to defeat Serena in the semifinals, there is no way that Serena would not go into an obsessed Sharapova trance to stomp her in a French Open rematch.

    Maybe this is a loss that could turn out to be a win. Sharapova might be better off regrouping, resting and seeing a possible Serena match in a couple of weeks.

Winner: Serena Williams

7 of 10

    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Any questions?

    Serena Williams is still best measured by herself. When she is healthy and motivated, she is the clear favorite on the WTA tour, no matter the opponent or the surface. This week on Rome's clay, Serena turned aside hot Ana Ivanovic and destroyed Sara Errani 6-3, 6-0.

    To sum up their serving games, Serena completely overpowered the smaller Errani as if it was a contest between a grenade launcher and a water pistol.

    Heading into Rome, there were concerns about her thigh injury and early exit at Madrid.

    There was also talk about Maria Sharapova's latest uprising, to the point that Sharapova tried to quell discussions about her being the Queen of Clay.

    The French Open is ready to begin. There have been many good stories from WTA players in 2014 including Li Na, Eugenie Bouchard, Dominika Cibulkova, Flavia Pennetta, Ana Ivanovic, Simona Halep and Sharapova.

    Despite all the assaults, there is only one clear favorite for the French Open. We will boil down the analysis to one word: Serena.

Loser: Rafael Nadal

8 of 10

    Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

    By anyone else's standards, losing the Rome final would be a winner of a week. But we are not talking about someone else. It's championship or bust at this venue for the King of Clay, and anything less does deserve at least some scrutiny.

    There were struggles all week with three-set matches versus Gilles Simon, Mikhail Youzhny, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Nadal did remind us of his clay-court resilience. He also had more moments of clay-king tennis, but he is clearly not playing with the same confidence and results that have marked his decade of dominance on red-clay Europe.

    Nadal played some heady tennis in the first set, especially with several big up-the-line forehands that stretched Djokovic and forced him to play more defense. He also broke Djokovic four times in three sets. This probably should have been enough, but against the "god mode" of Djokovic it is not. The second and third sets showed once again that Nadal may be the one looking up in their relationship.

    Nadal's loss was costly to his shrinking ATP rankings lead over Djokovic. The Rome loss cost him 800 points alone, and in one week his lead at No. 1 has shrunk from 1870 to 650 points.

    The margin is enough that if Nadal wins the French Open title, he retains his No. 1 ranking, regardless of Djokovic's performance. But if the Serbian wins the title, he will take No. 1 as well. If Nadal loses in the FO final to someone else, Djokovic would have to lose by the quarterfinals for Nadal to retain No. 1.

    We will add more on Nadal and Djokovic with an upcoming French Open preview that looks at the contenders.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

9 of 10

    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Following his win, Novak Djokovic took his racket and carved a large heart in the clay. It was a copy of Gustavo Kuerten's gesture in the 2001 French Open, and he hopes it will lead to the same result, a French Open title.

    Maybe the 2014 French Open seems as wide open as ever in the last 10 years, but King Novak may have just answered a few important questions about his own chances. He holds the 2014 Rome trophy as proof.

    The good news is that his wrist appears to be healthy. The rest at Madrid was the right move to ensure that he could play full out at Rome and Paris. Furthermore, his conditioning may be optimum right now. He endured some three-match tests this past week, and he gradually transformed into his No. 1 self.

    And can anyone doubt that he presents a host of problems to Rafael Nadal whether indoors, on hard courts, grass, clay or ice if need be?

    After a lackluster first set with unlikely backhand errors, Novak turned this into the kind of tennis he played at Miami nearly two months ago. He took time away from Nadal and hit with blistering pace. He showed that his A-game will defeat Nadal. He called his shots and named them, too.

    There were fans at Rome who held a Superman photo with Djokovic's face. This is not good news for the rest of the ATP unless someone can quickly find a cache of Kryptonite. Until then, Djokovic will be enjoying this week's Golden Breadstick award.

Loser: Rome Retro Look at 1994 Pete Sampras

10 of 10

    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    In 1994, Pete Sampras won his only Rome title. He had defeated clay-court specialists like young Alex Corretja, Andrei Chesnokov and Andrea Gaudenzi. Never mind that upsets ravaged other parts of the draw, and that bigger clay-court names like Thomas Muster, Jim Courier, Andrei Medvedev and Andre Agassi all died on the red clay.

    Sampras was full of confidence heading into Roland Garros. He had won the previous three Grand Slam titles and owned the No. 1 ranking. This would be his only chance to hold all four majors at once, something not done (still to this day) since Rod Laver. He was not yet scarred by clay-court disappointments.

    In the French Open quarterfinals, Sampras was outmuscled 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 by bulldog Jim Courier, his compatriot who had bagged a pair of French Open titles in 1991-92. Sampras coughed up 68 unforced errors and tried not to blame the problems he had with the strings on his racket. The biggest problem he had was not coming to the net, but choosing to get bludgeoned on the baseline by a player who could be as relentless as Rafael Nadal (and there the comparison ends).

    Sampras would get one more golden chance as a French Open semifinalist in 1996, but never covered the one hole on his resume.

    Winning Rome was nice, but losing the French Open probably stings worse.