Inside Rome: Roger Federer, Francesca Schiavone, Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic

Marianne BevisSenior Writer IMay 18, 2011

Inside Rome: Roger Federer, Francesca Schiavone, Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic

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    Finals day at the Foro Italico, the first time in 33 years to boast both a men’s and women’s final on a single day. And it rains.

    It begins, sharp at 2 p.m., precisely as Masha and Sammy walk onto court, and it settles over Rome like a sorry blanket for more than two hours.

    It’s mid-May, two weeks later than last year’s final, and they promised this would be a thing of the past: Rain had, you see, interrupted the 2010 final and the 2009 semifinals, too.

    But while your tame Rome correspondent of three years’ standing has become acclimatised, umbrella at the ready, the Foro remains a place ill-equipped for weather of the intemperate kind. There are few places to shelter, even fewer places to sit, and there is no news about the chances of play nor of the rain’s progress across the Italian capital.

    Time then to sit upon the ground and talk of players and matches and moments beyond the tramlines.

    In the brief hiatus ahead of Round 2 when the big guns got their campaigns under way, the focus turned to Rome’s favorite protagonists, and to one man and one woman in particular who drew the crowds like bees to a honey pot.

Roman Hero 1: Francesca Schiavone

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    Francesca Schiavone took to the Centre Court on opening Tuesday—a blur of apricot vest and terracotta muscle—to a torrent of cheers, singing and applause. And no one cared a jot that she did not play her best against American Christina McHale, though she won easily, 6-3, 6-1.

    Schiavone is this nation’s darling, and her angular, dark features could come from nowhere but Italy. But her appeal has moved beyond mere patriotic fervor. She wears her passion on her face, in her voice and in her tennis, and she broke down many an athletic preconception by winning the French Open—her first Major—at turned 30.

    This petite, wiry, extrovert woman still continues to improve. She was seeded No. 2 in Rome and is at an all-time high in the rankings. And in a sport dominated by much taller and considerably younger players, this lifts her popularity well beyond Italy’s borders. She is, in short, an inspiration.

    Schiavone’s match began, however, with a presentation ceremony. It happened last year—on that occasion on the Pietrangeli court—and was shrouded in mystery for every non-Italian speaking spectator. What was the award and who was making it?

    The answer to the latter was the great Italian Nicky Pietrangeli himself. The answer to the former—passed like Chinese whispers from Italian to English speakers—was something along the lines of the fans’ “most stylish and elegant player of the year.”

    On this occasion, they had chosen Schiavone. Last year, it was the only player to compete with her for the fans’ attention in the Foro Italico on opening Tuesday: Roger Federer.

Roman Hero 2: Roger Federer

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    His arrival was heralded from afar by the cheers and chants of crowds, by the shouted alerts from fan to fan and by the sight of small children hurtling to the source of the hubbub.

    Sure enough, Roger Federer had turned out to practise. Ranks of bodies filled every available viewing spot, including the stone bleachers raked alongside the women’s doubles match already under way on Court 6, the closest seating to the practise court beyond.

    For the four women attempting to focus on the job in hand, it became a nightmare. Chants of “bellissimo” followed Federer’s every move, each volley or slotted down-the-line backhand.

    Federer could do little but look embarrassed. He found time to watch a few rallies in his hapless neighbours’ match, had his photo taken with a couple of star-struck officials and eventually, after around 30 minutes of chaos, left the court with a quick wave.

    Whether he checked which of the pairs had won that second-round doubles match—it was Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova—who knows.

    He did know, if he ever doubted it, that his star-appeal was as great this year as when he won that award on Pietrangeli 12 months ago.

The Beauty of Clay in Unexpected Places

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    The terracotta rectangle is a thing of beauty, vibrant in the range of color from dry, pale orange to deep, damp rust. The dust, though, pervades every crevice—hair, eyes and shoes. To ease the problem, there appear small teams who rake and brush and spray the courts between sets and matches.

    The courts are dragged—sometimes at the change of ends as well as between sets, to even out the grit. Then a pair of old-fashioned besom brooms are drawn along the lines to clear them of their orange coating.

    The hosing is a highly dexterous performance requiring fine-tuned skill to spread the water evenly to the court’s edges without spraying spectators, players or the line judges’ chairs.

    The snaking, swirling arcs of water draw deep patterns on the surface and catch the brilliant sunshine in their droplets. A transient moment of watery beauty amid the shimmering heat of this tennis cauldron.

Premature Exits Open the Draw

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    The draw for the Rome Masters looked pretty even handed, on paper at least. By the quarterfinals, the top four should each meet a man at least three places below them in the seedings, and all the matchups were different from Madrid’s.

    That all soon changed.

    The first big shock was David Ferrer’s withdrawal from the top quarter with illness. The second quarter lost Gael Monfils in the same way. The third had Jurgen Melzer retire in his opening match with back trouble and, in the bottom quarter, it was Kevin Anderson who retired with an ankle injury—a segment already packed with five wild cards and qualifiers.

    Marin Cilic had one of the strangest of runs. He first played Ivo Karlovic, who retired with back problems, and was then scheduled to meet Ferrer. Instead, he met and beat a lucky loser and was therefore in prime condition to take out No.11 seed, Mardy Fish. That earned Cilic a quarterfinal place against a Rafael Nadal who, in beating Cilic, completed his run to the semis without facing a seed.

    Murray, too, saw his draw open like a scented flower. Not only did the seeds in his quarter disappear in the first or second rounds, but the dangerous lurkers of Alexandr Dolgopolov and Nikolay Davydenko also lost their opening matches. So Murray, too, reached the semis without facing a seed.

    The Federer and Djokovic quarters were rather different. The latter lost only three games to his first qualifier opponent, but he then also took out No. 14 Stan Wawrinka for the loss of just five games and No. 5 Robin Soderling for the loss of a miserly three games.

    Federer had the most dangerous opening opponent, though he dealt with No.18 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with ease. But then he faced a Richard Gasquet in burgeoning form…

The Magic of Richard Gasquet

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    Gasquet is a player who showed his prodigious talent at a tender age, announcing his arrival at the highest level when he beat the then-invincible Federer in Monte Carlo as an 18-year-old.

    He reached the quarters in Rome with his first win over that same man in eight subsequent attempts. It was a performance that recalled the Monte Carlo match, full of attack, slight of hand, sharpness of reaction and a quality and variety of shot that reminded his growing band of doubters just what this man can do.

    Still just 24, Gasquet’s steady growth in confidence has been matched by his rise up the rankings in the last 12 months, from 86 to 16. His run of form continued through his match against Tomas Berdych and, for two days in succession, he pulled back from a set down. Not so long ago, such pressure may have signalled a wavering of purpose in the Gasquet game, but not this time. He reached his second semifinal of the year.

    To reach the final, he had to beat Nadal and, for a set, it looked as though he might just pull off his third shock win of the week.

    The Frenchman had the upper hand for much of the first hour, garnering a number of break point chances, but Nadal resisted the bombardment from one of the sweetest yet deadliest backhands in tennis. He broke in the 11th game and took the opening set, 7-5.

    The demands of his two giant-killing three-setters of the previous two days began to take their toll on Gasquet, and Nadal, sensing his mental fatigue, went for the jugular. Serving at 81 percent, he took the set and the match 6-1.

    But Rome was something of a revelation for Gasquet. Not only did his game begin to resemble the kind of tennis that had once so excited the tennis media, but he had shown a mettle that had been sadly lacking since 2006.

    So Rome may not have delivered Gasquet’s third Masters final, but it put him back on the map and heading—possibly—for the top 10 for the first time in four years.

Italians: A Fair Passion

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    It’s a happy combination, the Italian attitude to tennis. Everyone in Rome is out to have fun, take their children, take in the sun, meet friends and wear their hearts on their sleeves.

    People shunt into closer seats until the right owner turns up or pass their euros along the rows to roving vendors for ice creams and water that are then passed back through the crowd. It’s friendly, relaxed, easy-going, yet passionate and absorbed.

    The minute the ball is in play, a hush descends and even excited gasps during a thrilling rally draw a communal “shhhhh” while the ball is in play. Nothing is allowed to distract the players at work but, point over, they explode with ebullient enthusiasm.

    They are, though, ruthlessly intolerant of any hint of unfairness. It is an unforgiving attitude that is meted out equally to both top seed and underdog. Any and every player who departs from the Roman protocol quickly learns to fall into line.

    One victim of the whistling treatment was Daniela Hantuchova, whose time-keeping between points became increasingly frustrating—particularly as she was playing Schiavone. Never once had Nadal suffered at the fans’ hands when he took out their Italian qualifier, Paolo Lorenzi, but the Slovakian held up the Schiavone serve once too often.

    Yet in other matches, where one player began as the crowd favorite, the quality of the contest soon banished such favoritism from the court. They cheered and chanted Federer throughout his match against Gasquet yet they increasingly cheered the play of the Frenchman and rose to celebrate his win with just as much gusto as they cheered their losing hero.

    It happened in the final between Nadal and Djokovic. The Spaniard began with the popular support but, within two or three games, the divide was blurring by the minute.

    It was a similar story when Djokovic played Murray. If there was bias toward one or the other at the start, by the end it mattered not a jot which man won…the quality of the contest was enough.

Murray the Brave Takes Djokovic to the Brink

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    It was very nearly the perfect birthday present as Murray almost made it to his first clay court final on the day he turned 24. And short of leaving blood on the court, it was hard to know what more Murray could have done to avoid his 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 loss at the hands of Djokovic.

    Many doubted that Murray, who was made to look ordinary by Djokovic the last time they met in the final of the Australian Open, would make much of an impression in their semifinal showdown. Murray, however, was bullish about his chances. He is, after all, a Taurus.

    It looked initially as though Djokovic would hand out the same treatment to Murray as he had already given to Wawrinka and, in the quarterfinals, to Soderling. He broke the Scot immediately and Murray managed just one game in the set.

    However, Murray came back calm, strong and with ground stokes the equal of Djokovic’s. They were also on a par when it came to defence, and rallies that looked done and dusted often continued to 20 or more shots. Murray seized an early reward for taking the attack to the Serb with a break to lead 4-2 and finally served out, 6-3.

    It was neck and neck in the third, each man breaking the other until Murray finally earned the chance to serve out the match. However, he chose the worst possible time to serve a double fault—on break point.

    He could then do little but watch as Djokovic turned on the heat in the tiebreak, won by a perfectly executed drop shot, after more than three hours of nail-biting tennis.

    Djokovic had discovered, for a while at least, what it is like to face his own tennis: forehands and backhands fired from corner to corner with not an inch to spare, all broken up by the deftest of drop shots and lobs.

    The difference between them was the x-factor: the unquestioning confidence that Djokovic now constantly wears in his bearing and his expression.

    Yet Murray will draw huge confidence from his performance against the best in the world, especially after taking a set from Nadal in Monte Carlo, too. At last, the Scot seems to have got the hang of the red stuff, just in time for Paris.

Backhand Beauties

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    The single-handed backhand, despite rumors of its demise, continues to be one of the aesthetic delights of tennis in 2011. And it was in conspicuous evidence in this most aesthetic of cities.

    Roman favorites Federer and Schiavone both weaved some magic on the Italian clay with their creative right arms, but there were others to relish, too.

    Gasquet matched his single-hander against Federer, Wawrinka made it to the third round with the biggest sledge-hammer of a right arm, although Ivan Ljubicic and Sergiy Stakhovsky lost in the second round and others went out in the first: Guillermo Garcia Lopez and rising talent Andrey Golubev.

    Feliciano Lopez is that very rare animal, a serve-and-volley Spaniard, and he came to Rome with some good results on the board. He took Federer to the brink in three tie breaks in Madrid and reached the final in Belgrade where he forced Djokovic to a tiebreak in the opening set.

    Lopez’s first match was against a carbon-copy Frenchman, Michael Llodra, a left-hander who wields a single arm on the backhand wing and attacks the net at every opportunity.

    Lopez beat the 21-ranked Llodra only to face another one-armed backhand merchant, the elegant German Philipp Kohlschreiber who himself took out another of the breed, Mikhail Youzhny, in the first.

    Meeting in the intimate basin of the Pietrangeli court, Lopez and Kohlschreiber blended muscular baseline craft with fluid net-attacking skills. The placid façade of the German gave the passionate Spaniard as good as he got, picking off smashes, running down drop shots and slicing his one-handed backhand within inches of the net tape.

    As the shadows lengthening from orange to russet brown, the match also lengthened to one set apiece. There were two hours on the clock and it was all square: one set all, three games all.

    It was Lopez, eventually, who gained some extra momentum in a scintillating eighth game of all-court panache. He broke the German and produced his biggest serving to take the match, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

    The battle had turned on the odd winner at the crucial moment: 95 points to 90. It also produced some of the most attractive and high quality tennis of the second round.

Tennis Royalty Pays a Call

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    Nadal was not having things his own way in his opening match against Italian qualifier and world No.148, Paolo Lorenzi. From 4-2 up in the first set, Lorenzi had pulled the champion back to a tiebreaker and taken the first set.

    Nadal opened the second set with a look almost of disgust etched on his face: He wasn’t playing his best, but he didn’t expect to be a set down. He broke Lorenzi’s first service game but the Italian fought back with a brave combination of net attacks and drop shots to hold his next serve and break Nadal in the following game. The match was level again, 4-4.

    This was the moment that royalty came to call. Nicola Pietrangeli took up his place in the sponsors’ section with no less a figure than Ken Rosewall, winner of a dozen Grand Slams, including two French Opens. Whether Nadal was aware of the honor was unclear, but he now played as though he had something to prove and stepped into the baseline to force another break and the set, 6-4, and reeled off the third, 6-0.

    Rosewall was in town to receive the Italian Tennis Federation’s “Golden Racket” along with 1990 and 2000 Rome champion, Monica Seles, who joined the raucous crowd for the Djokovic/Murray semifinal.

    Rosewall also turned up for super Thursday, a programme of Nadal, Schiavone and Federer, and he stayed for the lot. He put in another appearance on quarterfinals day, but on Saturday, hours before he was due to receive his award, he was rushed to the local hospital’s stroke unit after falling ill over breakfast.

    The latest news, fortunately, is that he is recovering well and hopes to return to Australia this week.

    Finals day attracted yet more dignitaries, among them Ilie Nastase. But in a particularly nice mirroring of Rome’s on-court battle between Djokovic and Nadal, the front row brought together two adversaries from the 1960s.

    Nicola Pietrangeli and Manolo Santana fought one another for the French title twice, the Spaniard winning on both occasions. They sat now, exchanging impassioned conversation and popcorn, before two men who seem destined to do the same in three weeks’ time.

Maria: Say It Loud…

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    In Rome, they love the Russian beauty that is Maria Sharapova, and although she has found the clay a hard mistress for her big-hitting game and less-than-nimble footwork, she came to their tournament in some of her best form in years. She had made the semis in Indian Wells and the finals in Miami, though Madrid was a disappointment.

    It quickly became clear that Rome was bringing out her best. With a bit of good fortune in the quarters from the retirement of Victoria Azarenka, Sharapova stormed through top seed Caroline Wozniacki in the semis. That took her, on finals day, to a meeting with Sam Stosur—a joining of two of the biggest serves and forehands in the women’s game.

    They, and the milling thousands, had to kick their heels while the gathering clouds unloaded over Rome for two hours, but finally it was Maria’s chance to shine, and shine she did, with an almost palpable intensity.

    Her fist clenched in encouragement between every point, she powered her way, accompanied by surely the loudest scream on a tennis court, to a 23rd career title and her first clay Premier title.

    It was, in the fans’ eyes, an adequate recompense for the loss of their own Schiavone, though the contrast in style of play, appearance, size and ease of movement could not be greater.

    Sharapova is now ranked No. 7 in the world, her highest position since November 2008, and with the Williams sisters out of the French Open and Kim Clijsters recovering from an ankle injury, the elusive Roland Garros title—the only Major missing from her resume—looks within her grasp at last.

Novak: Back-to-Back-to-Back

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    Djokovic knew before he played Nadal in the Rome final that he would remain the No. 2 at least until Paris. But that did not detract from what was at stake in this particular final, the first time in Masters history that the same two players had met in four finals in the same year.

    So the colosseum-shaped Centre Court, centrepiece of the Foro Italico that itself sits proudly on Rome’s Avenue of the Gladiators, completed a perfect Roman analogy.

    Nadal had won 31 out of 32 matches in Rome, taking the title five times. He had also now become the first player to reach five straight Masters finals. His problem, though, was that he had lost to the same man in three of those finals and now faced him again.

    And if Nadal expected his opponent to show signs of weariness from Djokovic's three-hour, three-set match the night before, he was soon disabused: The Serb continued where he had left off with piercing, line-skimming shots of remarkably consistent accuracy.

    Their exchanges were long and probing, but Djokovic maintained the upper hand with a near-perfect combination of penetrating forehands, searing backhands and the most flexible defence in the game. Though he began to look battle-weary in the second set, he took the match, 6-4, 6-4, to extend his unbroken record to 39 matches and seven titles.

    The ATP subsequently released a list of 39 stats to celebrate those 39 wins, but a handful of them is enough to tell the story: Zero—double faults in the Australian Open, Dubai and Miami finals; Five—wins in under an hour; Nine—sets lost and also bagel sets won; 14—sets won 6-1; 15—victories without being broken; 36—weeks at No. 2 until Roland Garros.

    The significance of all these statistics can, though, be distilled into that last one. Unless Nadal wins the French Open title, Djokovic will become No. 1. And even if Nadal does win the title, Djokovic will take over the top spot if he reaches the final.

    It is clearly what this most confident of players has in his sights:

    “[Nadal] is…the best player ever to play on this surface. I have won against him twice in the last eight days which I think is an incredible achievement for me, and he has given me a lot of confidence for the French Open.”

    Looking even further ahead, Djokovic has this week become only the second ever player to qualify for the WTFs ahead of Roland Garros. He’s already won that title once, at just 22, in Shanghai. Is there anyone who can stop him winning his second?