The king is back: Novak Djokovic returns to clay court action and sits at the zenith of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia draw in Rome. Djokovic has won the Italian Open an astonishing 6 times. With Rafael Nadal out of action, the world number one seeks to hold his position and properly prep for 2023 Roland Garros in this storied Masters 1000 tournament.
The draw for Djokovic is not easy. After a bye and a round of 64 match against a non-qualifier, Novak faces the possibility of playing his old rival Stan Wawrinka, who at 38 years old is not what he used to be but has proven in 2023 that he’s still a dangerous floater. Having to play the man who beat him in two Grand Slam Finals is not ideal. But it would be fun! Wawrinka would need to get through Ilya Ivashka and Grigor Dimitrov for it to happen.
Also in this quarter: Cameron Norrie, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Holger Rune, seeded 7th. Rune beat Djokovic at the Paris Masters this past year, and a Djokovic-Rune quarterfinal would be a good test of Novak’s reported elbow problems.
What’s Been Up With Casper Ruud?
For a player who loves the dirt, Casper Ruud has struggled in 2023. Last week’s early exit at Madrid is just the latest in a series of disappointments for the Norwegian, who’s still seeded at 4 in Rome due to his stellar play leading up to this slump. Knowing how hard this guy works, how much he adores the sport and how suited his game is to clay, I have to think there’s something else going on here in the way of injury we don’t know about. This just isn’t like Casper.
I’m 100% certain Ruud will find his mojo again, but until he shows signs of life, it’s hard to pick him to come out of the quarterfinals. American upstart Ben Shelton is in Ruud’s area of the draw. Botic Van De Zandschulp, Tommy Paul, Karen Khachanov and Jannik Sinner all lurk. If he’s healthy, Sinner has a nice glide for a few rounds. Sinner should be rested. He’s in his home country. And best of all, Sinner’s been sparring with Djokovic. Love it.
The Servers’ Quarter
The top part of the other half of this 2023 Rome draw brings some heavy hitters. Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, Alexander Zverev, Hubert Hurkacz and Taylor Fritz all reside in this one quarter. It’s a big-serving paradise, but on a slow court. Let’s see what Fritz can do. Free from the altitude of Madrid where he went out in the Round of 16, Fritz should be rested. He’s got a doable path until Rublev, who he’d have to face in the Rome Round of 16. Let’s see if Zverev has really moved past his injury, his controversy and his questionable maturity enough to re-establish himself at the top of men’s tennis. He’s won in Rome before. As for Medvedev? This is not his surface, and these are not his conditions. Circle a potential round of 16 between Medvedev and his “buddy” Zverev.
The Alcaraz Quarter
The big names in the final quarter are these: Planet Earth’s new darling Carlos Alcaraz, ever-present Stefanos Tstitsipas, Italian Lorenzo Musetti and resurgent Borna Coric. You would think that all these deep runs in clay tournaments would tire out Alcaraz, but honestly, with his youth and energy, a smooth ride to the quarterfinals seems inevitable.
Players to watch:
QF: Djokovic, Sinner, Zverev, Alcaraz
SF: Djokovic, Alcaraz
Rome Tennis 2023: The Women’s Draw
The WTA Internazionali BNL d’Italia is every bit as exciting as the ATP, thanks in part to the emergence of a rivalry between world number one Iga Swiatek and Belarussian power player Aryna Sabalenka. The two superstars of women’s tennis have met twice this clay season. Swiatek won in Stuttgart while Sabalenka triumphed in Madrid. It’s getting hot in here.
As the 1 and 2 seeds, Swiatek and Sabalenka are on opposite ends of the draw. If they were to meet again, Swiatek might have the edge because she’s defending champion in Rome, has beaten Sabalenka here before and the slower surface favors her “wind-it-up” forehand slightly.
Percentages say it’s unlikely these two will meet for a second time because over the course of a long tournament, external factors could conspire to keep lightning from striking 3 times in one short clay season. Namely, other fantastic players. Swiatek and Sabalenka have gone deep in tournaments, and they’re tired. They also want to guard against peaking too soon ahead of Roland Garros.
Swiatek doesn’t have anyone in her eighth of the draw to give her a worry. She’s too good on this surface and she’s in top form. Elina Svitolina is still making her way back after giving birth. Donna Vekic and Bernarda Pera are solid players but not in Iga’s league on clay. It’s not until the quarters when she could face Maria Sakkari that Iga might begin to sweat.
Swiatek vs. Sakkari H2H
In Rome, Swiatek and Sakkari could meet in the quarterfinals. The Greek would potentially need to get through Bianca Andreescu, Elise Mertens and/or Elena Rybakina. None of those players are particularly known for their clay-court prowess. Maria can handle it if she’s healthy. If it were to happen, Sakkari holds a 3-2 edge in her head-to-head with Swiatek, but Iga has taken their past three matches. Maria famously upset the Polish sensation at Roland Garros in 2021. Sakkari’s forehand, while vicious, doesn’t have as much margin as Iga’s. Less spin in the slower conditions of Rome equates to more errors. Both are sensational movers, but the slight edge goes to Swiatek.
Ons Jabeur headlines the second quarter of the ladies draw. Normally, I’d love her game in Rome, but she’s still not all the way back from a calf injury. It’s hard to believe, but Paula Badosa is unseeded in this tournament, and Jabeur and Badosa could meet in the Round of 64. These are two banged up players, so who knows.
The enticing potential matchup in this area of the draw is Jelena Ostapenko versus Daria Kasatkina in a possible Round of 16 match. The styles could not be more different. Having seen this movie, I know that “defense wins championships,” and while ‘Penko would fire off a good dozen return winners on Daria’s slow second serve, tennis is a game of errors. I see Kasatkina taking that one. Other seeds in this quarter include Barbora Krejcikova and Ekaterina Alexandrova, who took Swiatek to 3 sets in Madrid.
World number 3 Jessica Pegula and her doubles partner Coco Gauff bookend the 3rd quarter of the 2023 Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. These good friends and BJK Cup teammates have only played one WTA level match: Pegula beat Gauff in straight sets at Dubai in February 2022. They would compete brilliantly and enjoy playing each other, but that doesn’t mean they would necessarily want to. Yes, Rublev and Karen Khachanov just won the men’s doubles in Madrid after playing each other in singles. But you’ll notice neither man made the semifinals of that event. If it happened, my pick would be Pegula. Her level is just a smidge higher at the moment, and I think Rome suits her game.
In the final quarter, if Sabalenka can potentially get through the street-fighter Anhelina Kalinina, fellow Belarussian Victoria Azarenka could be in her future. Circle that match. Azarenka is a sublime returner, and the edge will be off Aryna’s monster serve on these slow courts of Rome. I see that one going three, possibly to Sabalenka. But if Aryna faces too many 3-set matches, an already long clay season will start to catch up with her.
This bottom quarter is fairly open and ripe for a clay court specialist to make some waves and earn some bank. Sabalenka definitely has the easier draw than her rival Swiatek.
Players to watch:
QF: Swiatek, Alexandrova, Pegula, Sabalenka
SF: Swiatek, Pegula