The second leg of this year's trio of Masters events on clay remains on the seductive Italian horizon. The injection of Italian culture towards the ATP this week will leave the Tour faithful with more than just tennis on their minds.
Rome provides a multitude of exquisite restaurants, eateries, and boutiques to keep the world's best players occupied when they're not chasing down a drop shot, or figuring out how to get that tiresome clay stain out of their socks.
Coming into this year's event, the top four players in the world will once again join forces for the first time since the Miami Masters in March.
Apart from the battered and bruised warriors absent from this week's field, I would definitely say that the Rome event could provide the best clay-court action this year with the exception of Roland Garros.
There are many story-lines that will need to be addressed this week (do the top players ever get a week off from being questioned?), starting off with Roger Federer's form during his first sighting on the clay this year; Novak Djokovic's persistent technical problems; Rafael Nadal's continued steamroll on the dirt, and Andy Murray's reluctance to forget his Australian Open defeat.
Nevertheless, whatever turmoil a player is going through (it could also be confidence that they're embracing), there is little time to reflect or gloat on when they are thrown into Center Court to perform.
Without further adieu my friends, let's take a look at the tantalizing field for this year's Internazionali BNL d'Italia.
Back from his temporary sabbatical from the circuit, the world's top ranked player was given a treacherous draw in his attempt to reach his third career final.
Afforded the luxury of a first-round bye, Federer will face less-than-clay-comfortable Ernests Gulbis or Marcos Baghdatis in the second-round.
Although neither Gulbis or Baghdatis play their best tennis on the dirt, they both embody the shot-making ability to knock off any foe.
I'd say that Federer should scrape by either competitor, but the loss of a set could be in order, considering his absence from competitive play.
Looking at the other potential menacing figures in Federer's draw, No. 8 seed Marin Cilic, or Indian Wells winner Ivan Ljubicic lurk in the latter rounds.
Cilic hasn't shown his best stuff on clay throughout his career, while Ljubicic does favor the clay, but will have to prove that his fitness is up to the task.
I'd say that Federer would be favored against either player, based predominantly around his ability to out move either foe.
For Federer to be upended before reaching the semifinals would without question be surprising, considering that he mentally checked out of the recent North American events in order to gear up for his French Open defense.
It won't be an easy romp to the semifinals, considering Federer's recent lack of prowess at the Masters 1000 stage.
But apart from trying to give himself the best possible preparation for his defense of Paris, Federer will also have the task of dealing with his greatest career rival before championship Sunday (when was the last time that happened, you ask? We'll get to that in a bit, but I'll give you a hint: French Open 2005).
All in all, Federer seems like the sensible pick here, taking into account his movement and stellar record on clay the past five years.
Look for dark horse Nicolas Almagro to provide some potential adversity if he can make it to a quarterfinal showdown with Federer, but that's a big if at this point considering Almagro's recent disappointing results on the clay.
We're almost half way mark of the Masters calender, and Federer hasn't reached the quarterfinals of any event thus far? That should change in Rome.
Here's the bad news for Djokovic: He's playing a game run by servers, but he can't serve at the moment. Here's the good news for Djokovic: He's playing on a surface that doesn't reward a good server, which would mean that he should be okay, right? Wrong.
I've sat with a perplexing look on my face while observing Djokovic this year. I saw him receive a cupcake draw at the Australian Open, only to fall ill and lose in the quarterfinals.
I've watched him stumble (literally) to the title in a Dubai; a tournament he should have realistically breezed through in routine fashion. He pulled through two emotional wins in Davis Cup, but he remained in recovery mode for the entire month of March.
To top off all this mayhem, the Serb reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo (a more than respectable result) but suffered his worst loss since 2008.
So what gives with Novak, anyway? Will he finally get that flame on his Sergio Tacchini attire in full swing? It is Rome, after all, and making sponsors happy is never a bad thing.
At any rate, I'm not too optimistic about Djokovic's Italian campaign, but considering the draw that he was given, he could very well prove me wrong.
Djokovic should face little-to-no adversity until he reaches a potential third-round clash with Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci.
Bellucci will have some work to do before reaching the third-round, with No. 14 seed John Isner as a likely second-round opponent. Bellucci is a fierce up-and-comer, and he's more than ready to bring home a big scalp on the dirt.
Apart from the troublesome Brazilian, Djokovic's only real concern in this quarter lies in the form of No. 6 seed Fernando Verdasco.
The Spaniard is in sensational form at the moment, but with two consecutive finals appearances resting in the wings, it's likely that he won't have enough left to challenge for a deep showing.
I'm sure Djokovic would like nothing more than another crack at Verdasco after his loss in Monaco, a match that would spell utter embarrassment for the Serb if were to lose.
All in all, Djokovic is nowhere near his best form right now, but that should not matter considering his quarter of the draw. Unless something unforeseen happens (Oliver Rochus, anyone?), then the No. 2 seed should at least make the final eight.
The four-time champion recently added exceptional calender management to his long list admirable traits. Withdrawing from last week's Barcelona event in his native Spain, Nadal's decision not to compete came at the forefront of a Grand Slam champion that cares about continued Grand Slam success.
With a comprehensive performance in Monaco, Nadal was adamant on resting last week while grinding his clay-court kicks in pole position for his Italian onslaught.
There will be no surprises in this section (I'm sorry to disappoint), considering that Nadal is rested and appears fit and confident. The king of clay is ready to christen the new Center Court with his dynamic blend of clay-court wizardry.
Potential obstacles for Nadal in this section could include: good friend Juan Monaco, Igor Andreev and No. 5 seed Robin Soderling.
Philipp Kohlschreiber could pose as a credible second-round opponent, but one wonders if he really has the belief to upend Nadal on clay? Kohlschreiber has defeated a quality cast of characters in numerous matches, but not the caliber of Nadal on clay—yet.
The main challenge for Nadal in his quarter could very prove to be Soderling. For obvious reason aside, Soderling is in tip-top form at the moment, and to further state the understated: He doesn't fear Nadal on clay.
Playing his brand of tennis on clay, Soderling is more than ready to bang away form the back of the court with Nadal, and prove that his win at Roland Garros last year was not aided by additional circumstances.
Nadal never claims that he looks ahead in a draw (believe me, I've asked him that on more than one occasion with no success), but how could he not be chomping at the chance to exact some Swedish revenge?
The story-line looks promising for that quarterfinal to occur, a story-line that should produce a favorable Spanish ending.
Nadal will be tough to beat this week, no question, but his potential clash with La Sod in the quarters would be the popcorn match of the event.
As mentioned, men's tennis currently encompasses many intriguing story-lines. However, within the intrigue of a story, lies an amazement for the present. There was a time and place where Murray would walk into a Masters event—not a Grand Slam, and clean up.
Irrespective of the surface, the Scot would display riveting tennis to finish with a more than respectable result. In recent times, though, Murray has been a fraction of the best-of-three-set genius he was in previous seasons.
Losing early in Indian Wells, Miami, and Monte Carlo, Murray remains in dire need of match wins and confidence.
Opting to skip the Barcelona event last week (even though he was in Barcelona), Murray will enter Rome with more than enough training—just like he did in Monaco.
If there was ever a time to gain "the Murray win of your career" the 13 other players in this section better be listening.
A trio of Italian players: Potito Starace, Andreas Seppi, and Fabio Fognini would love to add a Murray win to their resumes—the hometown factor would also make a potential victory all the more memorable.
Apart from the Italian contingent, Murray will have to deal with some rough dirtballers, namely David Ferrer and Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Holding the top two spots with victories on clay this season, both Ferrer and Ferrero could come through this section. No. 7 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the highest seed after Murray in this quarter, and the flamboyant Frenchman could be inline for a stylish campaign in Rome.
I like what I've seen from Ferrer as of late, and I would like to forget what Murray has brought to the table in recent weeks. With that being said, look for Murray's slump to side in, and remain in Rome.
Semifinals: Federer vs. Nadal; Djokovic vs. Ferrer
Finals: Nadal vs. Djokovic