Our tennis man Andy Schooler is backing Novak Djokovic for more glory at this week’s Rome Masters.
Novak Djokovic returned to top form in Madrid, winning the title there on Sunday, and he can add another Rome crown to his collection this week.
The Serb had suffered a string of shock defeats in the lead up to Madrid but he looked very much back to his best, not losing a set during the week.
In fact, with Marin Cilic withdrawing from their scheduled quarter-final, Djokovic only needed to win eight sets and that’s a fairly light schedule which will certainly aid his chances of completing what is probably the toughest Masters double on the ATP Tour.
The back-to-back events in Indian Wells and Miami are spread out over a longer period, while the summer hardcourt double in Canada and Cincinnati is surely less taxing physically than the clay grind of Madrid and Rome.
The Madrid-Rome double has been completed in two of the eight years it has been on the schedule (the current calendar slots were first occupied in 2011) with Djokovic being the first to achieve the feat in 2011. Rafael Nadal was the other in 2013.
Those two players have dominated in Rome over the past 15 years.
The pair held a duopoly between 2005 and 2015, winning all 11 titles. The absent Andy Murray and Alex Zverev, who will play this year, are the only other two players to win here since Nadal’s 2005 emergence.
Djokovic has won four of those crowns, losing in four other finals. He’s made four of the last five finals so clearly isn’t too bothered by the drop down from the altitude of the Spanish capital to the near-sea level of its Italian counterpart.
As a result of that switch, conditions should be a bit slower which probably won’t aid Roger Federer; this is one of two Masters titles he’s never won.
He played well in Madrid – his first clay event in three years – but it’s hard to see him winning here.
As for Nadal, he looks too short to be backing at 5/4.
Those setting the odds appear to be focusing too much on his past record on clay, rather than what’s been put before their eyes in the last month.
Nadal has played three claycourt tournaments this year and is yet to reach a final. That’s pretty remarkable for him.
His latest loss came at the hands of Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid and that contest saw too many unforced errors from the Spaniard, another thing which is very unusual.
By his lofty standards, Nadal is definitely below par right now and while a return to a venue he’s won at eight times before may well help him find something closer to his best, I can be backing him at 5/4 right now.
His draw is tricky too with Dominic Thiem a potential quarter-final foe.
Thiem, my pick in Madrid, pushed Djokovic harder than anyone last week, losing their semi-final on two tie-breaks. He’s unlikely to be far away here and having already beaten Nadal in Barcelona, he’ll have his backers to go well again this week.
He’s shorter now than he was seven days ago though and doesn’t have as strong a record in Rome as he did in Madrid – he’s yet to make the final here, his best effort being a last-four appearance in 2017.
For those looking at potential finalists from the big-priced outsiders, Gael Monfils catches the eye at 66/1.
The Frenchman has impressed me virtually every time I’ve seen him this season which, given the nature of his career, is saying something, and he’s now put together a useful 18-5 win-loss record in 2019.
He held two match points against Federer in Madrid before losing and now has a decent-looking draw here.
Zverev and Nishikori are the two leading seeds in Monfils’ quarter so I wouldn’t be that surprised to see him into the semis, although he does have a wretched record against Djokovic, whom he could meet in the last four.
On the other side of the draw, home hope Fabio Fognini at 50/1 could also give backers a good run for their money.
After winning his maiden Masters 1000 event in Monte Carlo (beating Nadal en route), Fognini went to Rome and played well again before losing to Thiem – no disgrace there.
Admittedly he doesn’t have a great record in Rome but the slower conditions should suit his game better and he did make the quarter-finals last season.
The first seed he can face is Tsitsipas, who spoke a lot about fatigue after his Madrid final. Federer could follow but Fognini’s natural ability on this surface would surely at least test the Swiss.
Monfils and Fognini would be my two if you are looking for long shots, but this has been a tournament dominated by the cream of the crop in recent times and so Djokovic gets my sole pick this week.