Serena, Federer, Djokovic among French Open storylines in Rome

The final major warm-up for the French Open — the last choice prize on the loaded Euroclay circuit — is already underway in Rome. There’s but one week left after the conclusion of this week’s Italian Open — an ATP Masters 1000 and a WTA Premier 5 tournament — before the start of play in Paris, but the contenders at Roland Garros generally skip the smaller events played then to focus on fine-tuning their games for the second Grand Slam event of the year.

In recent years, the main storylines for the French Open have already been determined by the time the Italian Open plays out. But there’s a different vibe in Rome this year, a sense that things are less settled. That means some of these questions burn with greater urgency than usual, and in the coming days they could have a powerful effect on the storylines for Roland Garros.

If you had to design the ideal tournament to determine how fit the celebrated 37-year-old is to contend for the French Open title, you couldn’t come up with a better event.

On the one hand, the Italian Open has been her most fruitful clay tournament; Williams is a four-time champion, most recently in 2016. On two occasions (2002 and 2013) her win was a prelude to triumph at the French Open. The golden color of the clay in Rome is a little different from the red dirt at Roland Garros, but it plays more like the stuff in Paris than does the red clay in Madrid.

On the other hand … the only event Williams has dominated in recent months has been the Met Gala. We know nothing about her training habits, or the knee injury she cited as her reason for pulling out of the Miami Open before her third-round match in March. You have to wonder: Is her game in shape and her head in the game?

Williams had a decent run at the Australian Open, making the quarterfinals. But in the nearly four months since then, she has played at just Indian Wells and Miami, pulling out of both with injury or illness after winning one match. Until her first-round win Monday in Rome, Williams hadn’t played an official match in nearly two months.

Williams’ Rome draw bristles with red flags. Seeded No. 10, she will meet sister Venus in Round 2. Defending French Open finalists Sloane Stephens (seeded No. 7) and Simona Halep (No. 3) are in her quarter, and Williams is in the same half as No. 1 seed Naomi Osaka and Madrid champion Kiki Bertens (seeded No. 6).

(UPDATE: On Tuesday, Serena Williams withdrew from Rome due to an old left knee injury. Her status for the French Open is not clear.)

This week’s Italian Open will be Serena Williams’ only clay-court tuneup for the French Open, which begins in two weeks. AP Photo/Gregorio BorgiaIs Novak Djokovic back in the driver’s seat?

Nobody during the reign of “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal has gone into the French Open in recent years entitled to feeling like the top men’s contender. Should Djokovic win in Rome, he would have the right to claim the privilege. He knows it, too. As he told the largely Spanish crowd after neatly defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Madrid final on Sunday, “This was very important for my motivation, a big win for my confidence. I’m looking forward to Rome.”

That’s fair warning to his rivals in light of how brilliant Djokovic was during his three-Slam run between last July and February. But motivation is a complex thing, as Djokovic demonstrated in recent months with his so-so results after he won the first Grand Slam of the year at the Australian Open. Some ascribe his losses at Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo to his deep involvement in ATP politics, combined perhaps with a “been there, done that” decline in his desire and consistency.

Djokovic equaled Nadal’s record of 33 Masters titles with his win in Madrid. It’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t want to eclipse his rival in Rome. He could get outplayed in Rome, but a loss to a player outside the Top 10 would be an ominous sign.

Can anyone emerge from Rome as the WTA’s French Open favorite?

Red clay is still a learning experience for the top-ranked Osaka. Sure, the 21-year-old is a quick study, but she has yet to win her first title on the surface. That leaves three women who could take control of the narrative with a commanding performance in Rome: three-time French champion Serena Williams, defending French champ Halep and Petra Kvitova.

Williams is a giant question mark; anything can happen when she steps on court — including a retirement. Halep has won plenty of titles on clay, and she’s a veteran of three French Open finals (1-2). But her chances are clouded by the awkward detail that no female winner has been able to repeat at Roland Garros since Justine Henin in 2007.

Kvitova has been the outstanding performer of 2019, moving to No. 2 in the world with a 27-7 record and two titles in four finals, including a loss to Osaka in the Australian Open finals. Yet Kvitova has had a maddening way of squandering as many great opportunities as she exploits, which is why she is by far the best player never to have been ranked No. 1. You can pencil her in as the legitimate favorite for Roland Garros if she wins in Rome, even though doing so might amount to a kiss of death.

Rafael Nadal is in trouble. Or is he?

“I knew what I had to do, it was clear to me, but I just wasn’t capable of doing it,” Nadal said after Tsitsipas defeated him on Saturday in the Madrid semifinals. “I didn’t have a good feeling to do the things I wanted to do and that’s it. We don’t have to dwell too much on it.”

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Those are strange, almost alarming words coming from Nadal, echoing his sentiments after he was crushed by Djokovic in the Australian Open final earlier this year. Much has been made of the fact that last year, Nadal’s record on clay was 26-1, while this most recent loss dropped Nadal to 9-3 in 2019.

At times, the King of Clay has certainly looked shaky, bereft of his sure-handedness and overly cautious. But consider this: the 32-year-old Spaniard has made the semifinals — or better — at five of his six tournaments this year. He totes a 20-5 record on the season, with three straight semifinals in Masters events on clay. He has been a few swings of the racket from playing for the trophy a number of times. Nadal has had far greater success on the slower clay of Rome than Madrid. If he wins it again, the narrative changes.

In addition, a Grand Slam is a very different proposition than a Masters 1000. Former coach and Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone made a point worth remembering when he said, after Nadal lost in the semis of Barcelona two weeks ago, “Until someone beats Nadal in a best-of-five match on red clay, he’s the favorite in Paris.”

The battle for Next Gen bragging rights is on

Alexander Zverev, the 22-year-old German ranked No. 4 in the world, broke out of the heavily hyped #NextgenATP pack in mid-2017. He was just a few months into his 20th year when his ranking hit single digits. These days, Greek sensation Tsitsipas is duplicating the feat and threatening Zverev’s status.

Tsitsipas is on fire. He is 20 years old and ranked No. 9, 27-10 on the year, and he has been in four finals in 2019, winning two. Zverev, meanwhile, has been struggling (13-9, one final). In Madrid, Tsitsipas logged back-to-back wins over Zverev and Nadal before losing to Djokovic. “I’m really glad to witness your greatness,” Djokovic said of Tsitsipas’ breakout during the trophy presentation.

Not so fast, a Zverev fan might say. Zverev may be in a bit of a slump, but last November he won the ATP Finals (the fifth-most prestigious title) and he is the only active player outside the Big Four to win at least three Masters titles. Zverev is also a defending finalist in Rome.

If feeling Tsitsipas nipping at his heels bothers Zverev, he isn’t showing it. After losing to him in Madrid, Zverev told reporters: “I think every week is going to be better for me and this week was better than the last week, the last week was better than the previous week, and next week I hope is going to be better than this week. So basically for the French Open I’ll be perfect.”

He laughed as he finished that thought, but it’s possible he was serious.

Was it wise for Roger Federer to enter Rome?

Whether it was wise or not isn’t as interesting as the fact that Federer feels he has both the game and the physical fitness to compete in Rome and bounce back after just a week’s rest at the French Open. Clearly, his appetite has been whetted, and why not? He held two match points in his excruciating quarterfinal loss to clay master Dominic Thiem in Madrid. Can you blame Federer for being hungry — or angry?

Annacone, who coached Federer through some of his greatest years, believes Federer should have elected to sit out Rome, keeping himself fresh for the French Open. Others believe that if Federer continues to play attacking tennis and wins a few matches in Rome, he will be that much more likely to go deep in Paris.

What can Rome do for 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens?

Stephens appeared to get some traction in this so-far-disappointing year last week in Madrid, making the semis for the first time in eight tries. Half of Stephens’ 12 tournament match wins this year were recent triumphs on clay. She also recently started working with veteran coach Sven Groeneveld, who has guided Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova and others.

In a press conference in Madrid, Stephens characterized her start to the year this way: “I was in and out, up and down, very emotional, it was a very bumpy road. I think (Groeneveld) coming in has brought structure and consistency, and to play my best tennis that is what I need.”

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