The Rome Masters Part One: Traveling in Hope

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The Rome Masters Part One: Traveling in Hope

It is better to travel in hope than to arrive disenchanted. (Japanese proverb)

This was an eventful expedition before it had barely begun.

The pilgrimage to the Rome Masters was booked many, many weeks back, and almost immediately, there was something to worry about.

The first scare arrived in the form of volcanic clouds, swept by uncharacteristic northerly winds from Iceland. The U.K. came to a halt for almost two weeks, and the planned departure date crept closer—and simultaneously receded over the horizon.

With every passing day of delays came more tales of people stranded around the world. But, just an hour behind schedule, this correspondent was sky-bound, Rome-bound, solo.

The second panic was prompted by reports of a new Centre Court at the Foro Italico.  Seats that were so scarce, and so hard to order, now seemed to have no equivalent in the new arena. Indeed, did I actually have seats at all?

One final fear remained on the way to the Eternal City, one that had nibbled at the back of the brain since the Rome draw was made: Would Roger Federer make it past his daunting first contestant, Ernests Gulbis?

Their only meeting, just months ago in Doha, was a tight affair, so Federer could be losing or could be winning.

However, the longed-for matchup between Federer and Rafael Nadal in the semifinals beckoned, so I journeyed in hope. Instead, I should have paid heed to that little nibbling doubt.

As one suitcase hit a hotel threshold, so one Swiss tennis player shanked his way to a final-set defeat.

Other seeds were also tumbling before my taxi pulled up at the tournament: Tomas Berdych, Marin Cilic, Sam Querrey, Juan Monaco, John Isner, Mikhail Youzhny, Juan Carlos Ferrero—all gone.

Soon after, the British flag was lowered as Andy Murray bowed out in only his second match.

Very soon, though, the remaining protagonists rose to the Roman occasion.

The meat-and-potatoes of the entire event, of course, are the men who lay it all on the line for ranking points, a little kudos, and the small question of a few million euros.

Wednesday dawned hot, and—an unexpected shaft of sunlight in the schedule—Federer decided to play hot in the doubles with his close friend, Yves Allegro. So on this particular day, he took to an outside court, sandwiched between the substantial bread of Robin Soderling on Centre Court and a satisfying battle of beautiful backhands out on Court Six: Ivan Ljubicic against Nicolas Almagro.

Finishing off the meal nicely, back on Centre Court, came Fernando Verdasco, stretched to 11 points in a first-set tie-breaker by an Italian thrilling his home crowd, Simone Bolelli.

Before long, there were more Italians exceeding expectations, such as Filippo Volandri going down in a final set tiebreak against Gulbis in front of an ecstatic Centre Court.

Other tasty courses were served up by clay-court artists such as David Ferrer and Stanislas Wawrinka.

Then there was a spell-binding marathon between Novak Djokovic and Verdasco, with the victorious Spaniard leaving so much on the court that he was already a beaten man by the time he took on compatriot Ferrer in the semifinals the following day.

Weaving a silver thread through all these golden delights was the man who had dampened this traveller's early hopes: Gulbis the seed-killer.

It’s been a long time coming: The prodigious talent of the Latvian has threatened to break through for what seems an eternity. But he's deceptive.

Still just 21, Gulbis is slowly maturing his skills and growing into his skin.

With so many shots to call upon, such touch and timing to control, such speed and deftness, it’s little wonder he and his fans have grown frustrated by the difficulty of bringing it all together.

One broken racket—thrown, and then deliberately snapped in two—had the crowd jeering. By the time he took on Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, he had won many of them around.

The Spaniard has established near god-like status with Rome’s fans, but Gulbis was cheered and encouraged with growing enthusiasm with every passing game, each break point, ace, and outrageous drop shot.

And where personal hopes had been dashed, they were now raised. Long may the Gulbis thread shine.

In the end, though, Rome was all about Rafa—back in winning form—and all about Roger—still in losing form. They continued to be the hot news and the centre of attention wherever they appeared. It’s the nature of stardom.

The slideshow of their personal tournament is, therefore, the closing Part Three of this Rome story.

Before that, Part Two will celebrate the experience of tennis as it is done in Italy.

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