Rome Masters 2019: Rafael Nadal's probable path to the title
One of the most significant traits of champion players is their burning desire to be defined by the achievements of the present and not by the accolades and glory of the past. And the eternal champion on the red dirt, the ‘King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal, would be desperately hoping to bring about a turnaround in his fortunes when he steps out on the Centre Court at Rome.
The Spaniard has succumbed to three successive semi-final defeats so far in this clay season. He would be eager to regain some momentum in the Italian capital where he is not only the defending champion but also an eight-time champion.
A triumph at Rome would not only help the Spaniard regain his self-confidence but also put him in a good state of mind before he heads to Paris, in anticipation of clinching his 12th French Open crown. On the other hand, another defeat on clay before the French Open would create huge doubts over his form and tactics.
In spite of Nadal being unable to win any title on clay so far this year, he is still the undisputed ‘King of Clay’. He undoubtedly starts as one of the favourites to win the Rome Masters title this week.
Being placed in the bottom half of the draw, Nadal in all likelihood will have to go through Dominic Thiem and Roger Federer just to make it to the finals. Alongside Federer and Thiem, the bottom half of the draw has other in-form and dangerous players too like Stefanos Tsitsipas and Fabio Fognini, making it a group of death.
Let’s have a look at Nadal’s probable path to the title at the Rome Masters.
Round of 32 vs Jeremy Chardy
Nadal will take on Frenchman Jeremy Chardy in their Round of 32 clash. Even though Chardy is coming off an impressive win over his countryman Richard Gasquet in their Round of 64 clash and another couple of well-crafted victories over Diego Schwartzman and Albert Ramos-Vinolas at Madrid last week, one can expect the ‘King of Clay’ to cruise in straight sets in this match.
Round of 16 vs Nikoloz Basilashvili
Nadal schooled Basilashvili in their Round of 32 contest at the French Open two years ago. However, the latter has come a long way since then; in their only match after that lopsided contest, at the US Open last year, the Georgian displayed a much improved performance before eventually losing in four sets.
That said, Basilashvili has failed to create any impression so far this clay season. Realistically speaking, Nadal’s claycourt prowess would be too much to handle for the talented Georgian; we can expect the Spaniard to run away with the match in straight sets.
Quarter-final vs Dominic Thiem
There is no doubt that Nadal would be wary of Thiem’s challenge as the Austrian has always troubled him on clay. In order to win, the Spaniard would need to make sure that he serves well, as it is not easy to break Thiem.
It would be intriguing to see if Nadal manages to prevail or if the resilient Austrian pulls off yet another sensational victory over the King of Clay.
Semi-final vs Fabio Fognini / Roger Federer
If Nadal passes the Thiem test, yet another stiff challenge awaits the defending champion in the semi-final in the form of either Roger Federer or Fabio Fognini.
Federer might have lost in the quarterfinal at Madrid, but his overall performance in the Spanish capital gave us enough evidence that the Swiss maestro, even at the age of 37, still has a functioning game on clay. He can challenge the best of the best on red dirt even after not playing on the surface for the last two years.
And yes, Federer being on the other side of the net would be mentally challenging for the Spaniard as he has suffered defeat at the hands of his biggest rival the last five times they have met.
Meanwhile home hope Fognini is like the x-factor player in tennis - a tremendous shot-maker on clay who can be unstoppable if he is on his game. Nadal has already suffered the wrath of Fognini this season as he lost to the Italian at the Monte Carlo Masters last month.
Last year at Rome Nadal got the better of Fognini, but it was a hard-earned victory, achieved in three tough sets.
Whether it is Federer or Fognini, Nadal can expect a stiff challenge in the semi-finals.
Final vs Novak Djokovic
Nadal’s defeat in the Madrid semi-finals meant that tennis fans were robbed of a blockbuster showdown in the final between the World No. 1 and the World No. 2. If these two gladiators stand on the opposite side of the net in the Rome final on Sunday, it would be a rematch of the 2019 Australian Open final, their first meeting since that one-sided match.
As has always been the case, a possible Nadal vs Djokovic clash would be all about fighting the mental battles. On his beloved clay Nadal has more often than not prevailed over the Serb, making this an ideal opportunity for the Spaniard to avenge the losses that he suffered at Wimbledon 2018 and Australian Open 2019 at the hands of Djokovic.
Last year at this event, Nadal toppled a tentative Djokovic in the semi-finals in two tough sets of high-energy, vintage tennis. But this time around, with his win in Madrid and the momentum that he has gained, the Serb might just start as a favourite by the slightest of margins.
Can Nadal rise once again to attain his super-human levels on clay amidst the clouds of despair and uncertainty? Can he bounce back to finally win his first title of the year at Rome? Or will he slowly fade away in his own shadows, signaling the start of the end of his incredible journey on clay?
It will be fascinating to follow Nadal’s progress at the Rome Masters.