Italian Open 2021: Men's singles draw analysis, preview & prediction

Novak Djokovic (L) and Rafael Nadal at the 2019 Italian Open
Novak Djokovic (L) and Rafael Nadal at the 2019 Italian Open
Namit Kumar

The final claycourt Masters 1000 event of the year is set to commence in Rome, as the 2021 Italian Open takes place from 10 to 17 May. The field at this year's tournament is an incredibly competitive one, especially in comparison to the 2020 edition - which was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent schedule changes.

Defending champion and World No. 1 Novak Djokovic headlines the draw, followed by nine-time champion Rafael Nadal. Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Alexander Zverev and Diego Schwartzman round out the remaining top seeds, making it one of the most packed Masters 1000 events in recent history.

With main draw action set to begin on Monday, here's a look at how the biggest names are likely to fare in the Italian capital:

Top half: Defending champion Novak Djokovic on collision course with Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem

Novak Djokovic with the 2020 Italian Open trophy
Novak Djokovic with the 2020 Italian Open trophy

Top seeds: [1] Novak Djokovic, [4] Dominic Thiem, [5] Stefanos Tsitsipas, [7] Andrey Rublev

Expected semifinal: Novak Djokovic vs Dominic Thiem

Dark horse: Cristian Garin

After dropping 500 ranking points by withdrawing from the Madrid Open, Novak Djokovic will look to get a big clay result under his belt before Roland Garros as he defends his 2020 Rome crown.

Djokovic might come up against Dan Evans in the second round, giving him the chance to exact revenge after the Brit shockingly defeated him at Monte Carlo. The Serb could then face familiar foe Grigor Dimitrov or a qualifier in the third round.

Standing in Djokovic's way to the semifinals is fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek has proven his abilities on clay by clinching his first Masters 1000 trophy in Monte Carlo and reaching the final in Barcelona this year.

Tsitsipas will come up against Marin Cilic or Alexander Bublik in the second round, before a potential third-rounder with either ninth seed Matteo Berrettini or Nikoloz Basilashivili. Both Berrettini and Basilashvili could be said to have an outside chance of reaching the quarterfinals, given that they have already picked up a claycourt tile this year.

The other section of this half is highlighted by World No. 4 and two-time Roland Garros finalist Dominic Thiem.

Dominic Thiem
Dominic Thiem

There were a lot of questions around Dominic Thiem's form and fitness when he returned to the tour in Madrid after a two-month sabbatical. But the Austrian has made a fine comeback, and at the time of writing, is set to play in the semifinals against Alexander Zverev.

Thiem has never done too well in Rome, with his semifinal showing in 2017 being his best result. He does, however, have a relatively straightforward route to the quarterfinals this year.

The 27-year-old will take on one of Guido Pella or Marton Fucsovics in the second round, and may set up a third-round encounter against Alex de Minaur or Gael Monfils. While Monfils is seriously short on both form and fitness right now, De Minaur has already been beaten by Thiem on clay this year (in Madrid).

The quarterfinal, however, could be a tricky affair for Thiem as he could face Russia's Andrey Rublev. The 23-year-old has been a force on the ATP tour over the past year, and has already reached his first Mastes 1000 final in Monte Carlo - even defeating Rafael Nadal along the way.

Rublev could take on Jan-Lennard Struff in the second round, followed by a testing third-rounder against one of Roberto Bautista Agut, Lloyd Harris or Cristian Garin. While Harris and Bautista Agut's games do not excel on clay, all of Garin's tour-level titles have come on clay; the Chilean could pose a threat to Rublev's chances of making it to the quarterfinals.

Bottom half: Rafael Nadal on the hunt for a 10th title in Rome

Rafael Nadal at 2019 Italian Open
Rafael Nadal at 2019 Italian Open

Top seeds: [2] Rafael Nadal, [3] Daniil Medvedev, [6] Alexander Zverev, [8] Diego Schwartzman

Expected semifinal: Daniil Medvedev vs Rafael Nadal

Dark horse(s): Casper Ruud, Aslan Karatsev

This week in Rome, Rafael Nadal will be looking to win his first Masters 1000 title since the 2019 Rogers Cup. The Spaniard was knocked out of the quarterfinals in both Monte Carlo and Madrid, but he did manage to win a 12th title in Barcelona.

Nadal has won two of the last three Italian Opens, but has been handed a tricky draw this time. The World No. 2 will likely take on 19-year-old sensation Jannik Sinner in the second round, followed by either Denis Shapovalov or Casper Ruud in the third.

Ruud has consolidated his place as a force on clay by reaching the semifinals of each of the last three clay Masters 1000 events. He is also a regular at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, and knows the Spaniard's game well.

Even if he navigates that threat, Nadal could next face a repeat of the Madrid quarterfinals, potentially taking on Alexander Zverev in the last eight. The German reached the semifinals in Madrid by defeating Nadal in what he called "one of the biggest" results of his career.

Zverev might face Adrian Mannarino in the second round, and one of Kei Nishikori, Fabio Fognini or Pablo Carreno Busta in the third. All three players have strong claycourt records, but come into the tournament in relatively indifferent form.

World No. 3 Daniil Medvedev, meanwhile, will look to put his poor claycourt form behind him in Rome.

Daniil Medvedev
Daniil Medvedev

Medvedev will likely take on the in-form Aslan Karatsev in the second round. Karatsev has risen through the ranks rapidly this year, reaching the Australian Open semifinals and winning his first tour-level title in Dubai. The 27-year-old also defeated Novak Djokovic on the Serb's home court in Belgrade to reach the final of the Serbia Open.

If Medvedev gets past Karatsev, he may face a tricky third-round encounter against 15th seed and Miami Open champion Hubert Hurkacz. The Russian's quarterfinal opponent, however, seems very uncertain at the moment.

Eighth seed Diego Schwartzman is projected to reach the stage by virtue of his seeding, and particularly since he reached the final here last year. However, the Argentine's poor form in 2021 might give the likes of Felix Auger-Aliassime, Karen Khachanov, or David Goffin a chance to reach the quarterfinals or better.

Semifinal predictions

Novak Djokovic vs Andrey Rublev

Aslan Karatsev vs Rafael Nadal

Predicted final

Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal

Predicted champion

Rafael Nadal

Edited by Musab Abid
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