Rafael Nadal’s Madrid Open quarter-finals loss may have been a shock, but the extra rest and motivation it brings should make him a greater force than ever for the remainder of the clay-court season. Once again, the biggest question for the Rome Masters remains the same. Can anybody halt Nadal?
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Rafael Nadal  vs Dominic Thiem  (Nadal leads H2H 6-3)
For the fourth clay-court Masters 1000 event in a row, King of Clay Rafael Nadal and occasional Prince of Clay Dominic Thiem have landed in the same quarter of the draw. After his monumental defeat of the Spaniard last week in Madrid – in which Thiem played to win and landed impeccable angles, and in which Nadal showed signs of mental fatigue – the Austrian has beaten Nadal on two of these occasions. Even more intriguing is that all three of Thiem’s victories over the Spaniard have come on dirt – the surface which the ten time French Open champion has dominated like no other tennis player in history.
But if last week showed us anything, it is that we should not make assumptions about any player or any result. Both Nadal and Thiem must come through two matches before they can square off again, and for the latter in particular – who is still competing in Madrid at the time of writing – the turnaround will be a swift one. After a first round bye, he could take on energetic and athletic Frenchman Gael Monfils – who, crazily enough, opened against Nadal in Spain last week. The former world no. 6 struggled to hold a candle to the all-time legend on that occasion, but he did not appear to fancy his chances entering the collision. Despite Thiem’s great form, the Austrian lacks the vast accomplishments and locker room presence of Nadal, and Monfils could do damage if he believes in his ability – especially if he first comes through an encounter with home player Fabio Fognini. The former world no. 13 has had an unimpressive clay-court season to date, but crowd support on home soil has lifted him to victory over Andy Murray – among others – in times gone by.
Should Thiem enter the third round, he should be wary of a potential clash with giant-slaying no. 12 seed Sam Querrey, with Adrian Mannarino also in the running to face him.
Nadal, meanwhile, will be displeased to see Fernando Verdasco lurking as a strong opening match possibility. The 31-year-old has brilliant records against the vast majority of his countrymen, including Verdasco, but his experienced fellow lefty has beaten Nadal on clay before (albeit it blue, and slippery, and definitely not to the King of Clay’s taste.) Damir Dzumhur and his persistent groundstrokes could, however, save Nadal the trouble of facing his fellow Spaniard.
Things may get tougher in round three, and here we must spare a thought for one of the most consistent top ten players of the past decade: Tomas Berdych. After a small slide down the rankings, the Czech has been the recipient of some of the tour’s most unfortunate draws this season. Berdych opened against (and lost to) Kei Nishikori in Monte-Carlo last month, Richard Gasquet in Spain last week, and the no. 15 seed is now required to duel Madrid Open semifinalist Denis Shapovalov in round one of Rome. The winner could well move on to face Nadal in round three after a probable round two collision with NextGen star Daniil Medvedev.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Rafael Nadal
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Grigor Dimitrov  vs John Isner  (Isner leads H2H 2-1)
Among those that have been seizing the recent opportunities on tour is America’s John Isner – who claimed a maiden Masters 1000 title at the Miami Open. The ATP then immediately transitioned to clay, and the big-serving world no. 9 has not won more than two matches in each of the events he has played since.
Looking at his Rome draw, there are chances that this will be a continuing theme – despite his run to the semifinals in 2017. Straight off, Isner will have to duel an experienced clay-courter in Albert Ramos-Vinolas for the second year running – as long as the Spaniard comes through his opening clash with a qualifier. After that – a clash which he came through in three sets last year – he could be looking at a third round encounter with Novak Djokovic: the long-time ATP dominator whose two years of struggles are continuing.
In Monte-Carlo a few weeks ago, Djokovic showed flashes of promise, and the same thing happened during a much-needed victory over former top five player Kei Nishikori in the first round of the Madrid Open. The Serb finally appeared more confident in his game, more sure of himself. But his Monte-Carlo run was followed by a first round loss in Barcelona, and his Nishikori victory preceded a three set defeat at the hands of British 23-year-old Kyle Edmund.
What we cannot forget, however, is that Djokovic – despite his loss of form since the 2016 French Open – has reached the last four Italian Open finals. An opening match against hot-and-cold Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov could be tricky, but if the former champion can get going, he can challenge for this title.
Grigor Dimitrov, however, might have something to say about that. The ATP Finals champion is yet to really make a splash this clay-court season, but the Bulgarian’s game translates well across all surfaces. He was unfortunate to draw an unseeded Milos Raonic in the second round of Madrid, going down in three sets to the former world no. 3, but he displayed decent form in both Monte-Carlo (losing to Nadal) and Barcelona (losing to Pablo Carreno Busta.)
The 26-year-old has drawn a short straw once again in Rome, and may have to open against Kei Nishikori – who is more than feeling the blow of being unseeded himself. The Japanese star opens against Spanish lefty Feliciano Lopez, and would take a 3-1 head-to-head advantage into his clash with Dimitrov. The one-handed-backhander, however, triumphed in their most recent meeting.
Whoever reaches the third round would find themselves up against one of NextGen’s Karen Khachanov, long-time pro Philipp Kohlschreiber, 2013 French Open finalist David Ferrer and America’s Jack Sock. All are notable in their own right, but all four are more likely to push to the brink than ultimately conquer on this particular surface.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: John Isner
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PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Marin Cilic  vs Kevin Anderson  (Cilic leads H2H 6-1)
In what is certainly the softest quarter of the draw, big-serving, flat-hitting top ten players in Kevin Anderson and Marin Cilic are looking at good opportunities. Anderson went all the way to the semifinals in Madrid last week, although he lost the lone match he has played against a top 20 opponent this clay-court season, and Cilic is returning to the scene after losing in the first round of April’s Istanbul Open.
Due to one particular name, Anderson’s half of this quarter is the more interesting of the two. The South African is looking at an opening encounter with either Hungarian Open semifinalist Aljaz Bedene or Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller. Should he come through, 2015 French Open champion Stan Wawrinka is a possibility for the third round. The Swiss star has been among the widely-missed injured elite of the ATP tour for the past few months, playing four tournaments to open the year before taking a break in February – knee pain having been troubling him throughout many of his outings. This will be his first tournament back in three months, and it’s hard to predict whether his wealth of experience – and general streaky nature – will allow him to jump straight back into things or not. Wawrinka has drawn America’s Steve Johnson in the first round, with the winner scheduled to face either Jared Donaldson – a younger American prospect – or Pablo Carreno Busta, who would undoubtedly put his opponent through their paces.
Cilic, meanwhile, will probably have no excuses for struggling in his opening match against either Yuichi Sugita of Japan or USA’s Ryan Harrison. In the third round, pint sized Argentine Diego Schwartzman – who had real chances in the second set of his recent clash with Nadal – could cause him some trouble, with two dangerous Frenchmen in Benoit Paire and Richard Gasquet also possible opponents.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Marin Cilic
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Alexander Zverev  vs Juan Martin del Potro  (del Potro leads H2H 2-0)
Juan Martin del Potro, for all his talent – which this year saw him win Indian Wells and reach the Miami Open semifinals – is not known for his ability on dirt, and his three set loss to world no. 95 Dusan Lajovic in the third round of Madrid was far from ideal.
And the Argentine could well be up against it from the word “Go” in Rome. Borna Coric – a top prospect on tour for years, who has pushed Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to the brink over the past few weeks – will face him in round two if he wins his opening match against a qualifier, and the 21-year-old’s topspinning groundstrokes are a perfect fit for clay.
David Goffin – still making his way back on tour after a freak accident at a tournament in February – is in line to face whoever makes it through to round three, with Hungarian Open champion Marco Cecchinato (an Italian), Uruguay’s Pablo Cuevas and Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer also in contention.
Meanwhile, defending champion Alexander Zverev was able to play more freely in reaching the Madrid Open final – with few ranking points to worry about – than he likely will in Rome. That said, the 21-year-old German has been displaying increased maturity and focus this season, and is a strong world no. 3 even disregarding the current injury struggles on the tour that have opened things up.
Zverev has been given a kind opener in Rome after a first round bye, which he will surely appreciate after his full week in Spain. His title defence will commence against either a qualifier or 22-year-old Italian wild card Matteo Berrettini, who has only won one tour level match this season. Presuming the German survives, his toughest prospective third round opponent is surely Kyle Edmund – who will make his top 20 debut on Monday after a run to the Madrid Open quarter-finals. The 23-year-old is really finding his stride this year, following up an Australian Open semifinal showing with strong results on clay. He barely lost out to Shapovalov in a close-fought encounter last week.
Other potential third round opponents for Zverev include 2016 semifinalist Lucas Pouille and home hope Andreas Seppi – who is no stranger to an upset.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Borna Coric
SEMIFINALS: Rafael Nadal d. John Isner, Borna Coric d. Marin Cilic
FINAL: Rafael Nadal d. Borna Coric
Thanks for reading! I originally had Novak Djokovic down as the semifinalist for the second quarter, and almost put Kyle Edmund through in Borna Coric’s place. This one was tough… What would you have done?