When in the Rome draw, watch out for Carlos Alcaraz, the hottest player on the ATP Tour, and though only a 7 seed, he poses the most dangerous threat to topple Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on clay.

As of this writing, Alcaraz knocked off Nadal in Madrid despite an ankle-turning tumble and was set to challenge Djokovic in the semifinals. The Rome draw features the 19-year-old Spaniard in the opposite half from Djokovic and Nadal. This time, Alcaraz lands in a quarter with Alexander Zverev.

Let’s talk about how Rome is different from Madrid and how that might impact the draw.

Since Madrid stands at an altitude of 2,000+ feet, the air is thinner and players huff and puff on the longer points. Then they jump on a plane back to sea level. They have in essence completed a training bloc doing what Olympians have done for centuries: Exert themselves at a high altitude, acclimate, then upon returning to more oxygenated air, feel like a Roman gladiator.

For this reason, I favor players who had good runs in Madrid, with the caveat that we are now in the apex of the tiring clay season. So the finalists in Madrid might feel a little spent. That’s the case for both the men and the women and why winning Madrid-Rome is the sport’s “toughest double.”

How many times did Nadal win Rome?

The King of Clay has won Rome a stunning 10 times, including a 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 victory of Djokovic in last year’s Final. Rafa has won the Madrid-Rome double twice, in 2010 and 2013. Djokovic has won the Internazionali BNL d’Italia five times and won Madrid-Rome double once, in 2011.

In the past 17 years, only two players not named Nadal or Djokovic have managed to keep the Italian Open out of their grips: Andy Murray and Alexander Zverev. Murray withdrew from Madrid with food poisoning and was not in line to get a wild card to play the Italian Open anyway, so it’s unlikely he will be in Rome. Zverev is expected to play and has that quarterfinal matchup with Alcaraz as a possibility.

Alcaraz in Italy

Alcaraz has never played in the Italian Open and hasn’t even attempted to qualify. His ascent in the tennis world has been so rapid that this time last year, to warm up for Roland Garros, he played a Challenger event in Portugal. Which he won.

Despite that, Alcaraz being from the South of Spain in El Palmar, Murcia, he has spent much time across the Mediterranean in Italy. In 2020, he played in four Challenger tournaments honing his chops on clay in Italy. At age 17, he won one of those tournaments and lost in the finals of another. Translation: when it comes to Italian clay, he’s got this.

Rome Tennis Matches and Players to Watch

The surface in Rome is slow, even slower than Madrid. Defense is rewarded, as is fitness. Big serves and hair-trigger groundstroke gunning are not legit strategies. Monte Carlo finalist Alejandro Davidovich Fokina should like this tournament and lurks as the toughest floater in the Djokovic quarter. If Davidovich Fokina can get through Felix Auger Aliassime, the 8 seed, that’s Nole’s biggest worry until the final rounds. Given that ADF beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo this year, I don’t see the legend letting that happen again.

Clay court specialist Casper Ruud should like Rome better than Madrid, but the Norwegian 5 seed will need to get through Sebastian Korda or Botic van de Zandschulp. Then he’s looking at the potential of a revived David Goffin, middle-round specialist Hubert Hurkacz and cardio-inducing Jenson Brooksby. It’s a tough section. Those guys will beat each other up, and the victor could emerge looking at Nadal, who has a fairly easy skate of likely John Isner in round 2.

If Stefanos Tstitsipas isn’t exhausted from all the clay matches he’s played so far this season, his game might square well in Rome. The Greek has a semifinal run and a quarterfinal run to his credit at the Italian Open. After a first-round bye, his 2nd round match is Grigor Dimitrov, who Tsitsipas just eased past in Madrid. In the top section of that quarter, the gingers Andrey Rublev and Jannik Sinner will meet. I favor Sinner in a close contest due to the slower conditions.

In the final quarter, a fun matchup we have yet to see in 2022 could be Alcaraz versus Zverev. They have played twice, with Zverev winning in straight sets both times. But 2022 is the year of Alcaraz. Because the German relies so heavily on his serve, I give Alcaraz the edge on the basis of movement.

My Players to Watch: Djokovic, Nadal, Tsitsipas, Alcaraz
SF: Nadal, Alcaraz
W: Nadal

WTA Rome Draw

The story of the WTA has taken some sharp turns this season. Ash Barty’s retirement from tennis was an abdicated throne to Iga Swiatek. The Polish superstar has taken the crown and run with it. Swiatek is set up to dominate the same way Alcaraz has. We could see a new era in tennis with two reigning elites atop the tennis mountain– with only a few foils around to challenge their supremacy.

The most sizzling pop-out in the women’s Rome draw is a first-round match between US Open Champions Bianca Andreescu and Emma Raducanu. Both stars have had their ups and downs since winning in New York. It’s really tough to tell where their games stand. Raducanu has sprayed the ball at times. This is a slow surface. It’s not the time to practice aggression. Andreescu has the variety and touch to take advantage of drop-shots and various spins, but the Canadian typically needs some free points on her serve to excel.

The winner of that match will stare down the barrel of clay-court tough-out Sara Sorribes Tormo or Naomi Osaka. Those two just faced off in Madrid with the Spaniard frustrating the 4-time Grand Slam Champion very easily. This will be hugely interesting to see if Naomi comes up with a different game plan or stubbornly sticks to trying to outgun the brick wall that is Sorribes Tormo. I don’t expect Osaka to win, but I will be very impressed if she does something different.

Because Ons Jabbeur and Jessica Pegula made the Final of Madrid, I expect a good but not long run in Rome from those two players.

Swiatek is so far and away the favorite, it’s hard to see anyone else. Clay is, afterall, the 2020 French Open Champion’s best surface.

My players to watch: Swiatek, Kalinina, Gauff, Badosa
SF: Swiatek, Badosa
W: Swiatek


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