Welcome to Road to Rogers Cup, a weekly review of all the action on the pro circuit leading up to Rogers Cup presented by National Bank this August 4th to 12th at the Aviva Centre in Toronto.
This week, we have a look back on the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, which saw Rafael Nadal claim his eighth crown in the Italian capital and cement his spot – once again – at the top of the Roland Garros contenders list. In addition, preparations for the second Grand Slam of the year come to a close, with a few smaller tier tournaments taking place for those looking to get some last minute clay-court matches in before the big one in Paris, where qualifying has already begun.
Last week: Rafa reasserts dominance, Zverev not far behind
In Rome, all eyes were on the standouts from the week prior in Madrid: Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Denis Shapovalov and, as always, Rafael Nadal. The earliest casualty was Thiem, who, after finishing runner-up in Madrid for the second straight year, was bounced by home-favourite Fabio Fognini in his opening match. Fognini is a known giant killer with impeccable skills on clay courts, so the upset itself isn’t as much of a shock as it might appear on paper – however, Thiem will have been disappointed to not defend his semifinal points from the year prior.
Zverev managed to land himself in a lighter section of the draw, yet had a trickier time in the slower Rome conditions than his romp through the Madrid draw. The German wunderkind was forced to save several set points in a thrilling tiebreaker against Kyle Edmund in the third round, and was pushed all the way by David Goffin in the quarterfinals and again by Marin Cilic in the final four.
In the final, Zverev would face off against Nadal. Nadal made light work of his first few opponents, including Shapovalov, who survived two thrilling rounds in Rome before running out of steam against the King of Clay in the third round. Fognini managed to steal a set off the Spaniard in the quarterfinals before Nadal managed to navigate through a high-quality semifinal with long-time rival Novak Djokovic.
On Sunday, the final began as a rout, with the seven-time champ handing out a 6-1 first set to the defending champion. Zverev, however, found the level that saw him win the title last year and repaid Nadal a 6-1 set of his own in the second. The 21-year-old raced off to a 3-1 lead in the final set, looking like he would throw into question who the true favourite for Roland Garros would be in two weeks time…
But that’s when Mother Nature struck.
Long live the King of Clay ☝️
— Rogers Cup (@rogerscup) May 20, 2018
With the momentum firmly in Zverev’s favour, a lengthy rain delay allowed Nadal the time to regroup and his #NextGenATP opponent the time to lose his focus. Upon resumption, the 31-year-old reeled off five games in a row to claim the title.
- Zverev is close. Close to the top of the game, especially on clay. The problems that his game faces on hard courts, such as rushing his more volatile forehand, simply don’t exist on clay courts. The surface allows him to boss around his opponents off both wings, and his exceptional defensive skills earn him the edge in return games. He’s close to being the best on clay, but, as the Rome final demonstrate, he’s not there just yet.
- Nadal is the Roland Garros favourite. Death, taxes, and Nadal winning the French Open. It’s the same every year – and we shouldn’t expect anything less from him this year. Thiem has proven that he’s able to redline his game long enough over two sets to upset the King of Clay, but the best-of-five format in Paris is a completely different beast. Only two players have ever beaten Nadal there, and “Princes” of Clay Zverev and Thiem haven’t shown their best in that format over the year.
- Djokovic might be back. The former World No. 1 was able to dethrone Nadal in 2015 at the French Open and remains just one of two players to ever beat him there. He pushed the Spaniard hard in their Rome semifinal, but is his game back to where it needs to be to make him a viable threat to his rival’s dominance on Parisian clay?
This week: Final preparations for French Open, qualifying underway
With many top players opting for one week of rest and practice ahead of Roland Garros, other players are taking advantage of openings in the draw to earn some valuable ranking points at the ATP World Tour events in Geneva and Lyon this week. The exception here is Dominic Thiem, who is the top seed and former champion in Lyon.
Qualifying for the French Open sees Taro Daniel as the top seed, with dangerous floaters Martin Klizan and Sergiy Stakhovsky also seeded. Former Top 10 player and Roland Garros semifinalist Ernests Gulbis is also in the qualifying draw, just two wins away from his first Grand Slam main draw since last year’s US Open.
Denis Shapovalov has touched down in Paris and is projected to be seeded 25th, which will be his first time seeded at a Slam. With one more withdrawal from a player ranked ahead of him, he’d be able to avoid drawing a Top 8 seed in the third round. Fellow Canadian Milos Raonic, however, will be unable to play this year’s French Open, as he withdrew from the tournament to rehab a knee injury.
Félix Auger-Aliassime and Peter Polansky were successful in their first round of qualifying action, with the Montrealer sweeping by Lloyd Harris 6-3, 6-4 and Polansky coming back from a set down to defeat Norbert Gombos. Auger-Aliassime is bidding for his first Grand Slam main draw, while Polansky is looking to qualify for Roland Garros for the first time since 2014.