Djokovic Rested, Nadal Excited To Be Back In Rome

Novak Djokovic in Rome (photo: FITP)

ROME/WASHINGTON, May 8, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

The 2024 edition of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia began Wednesday in the Eternal City of Rome, highlighted by four former champions in this year’s draw, including World No. 1 and six-time champion Novak Djokovic.

The Serbian great, who owns the record for most ATP Masters 1000 titles (40), finals (58) and semifinals (77) in series history, will be competing in just his fifth event of 2024 with an eye toward winning his first title since garnering the 2023 Nitto ATP Finals in Turin. He will open later in the week against either lucky loser Corentin Moutet of France or Roman Safiullin of Russia in his first action since Monte-Carlo.

“I had plenty of time to also rest and train. Had a good training block,” Djokovic said during his pre-tournament news conference on Wednesday. “I arrived here two days ago to get a hit on the Centre Court, as well, obviously stay four or five days training before my first match with top players.

“Obviously, it’s different when you train with them, playing practice sets, seeing where your game is at, kind of working your way towards the fine form for the first official match. Hopefully, here in Rome, I can play better than I did in Monte-Carlo. That’s the wish, obviously, is always to go far.”

After missing Rome last year due to injury, Rafael Nadal has entered the draw for the 19th time in the last 20 years, breaking the record for most appearances in Rome in the Open Era. The Spaniard leads the tournament in titles won (10) and most wins (69). He’s reached the quarterfinals in 16 of 18 previous occasions. Nadal plays his first match against Belgian qualifier Zizou Bergs on Thursday.

“I have been a few days at home, then arrived here on Saturday,” Nadal said during his pre-tournament news conference on Wednesday. “I was able more or less to practice well the past few days. I’m excited to be playing in Rome. It’s a tournament that brings me back to a lot of unforgettable memories. My third week almost in a row on the Tour, third tournament in a row. That didn’t happen since a super long time ago. That’s good news.”

Last year marked the first Rome final without either Djokovic or Nadal since 2004.

Meanwhile, reigning champion Daniil Medvedev of Russia arrived in Rome last year with a 0-3 record before capturing his first ATP Tour title on clay. Now, the World No. 4 will try to defend a title for the first time in his career, after previously winning all of his 20 titles in 20 different locations. He will start his title defense against either Borna Coric of Croatia or Jack Draper of Great Britain.

Despite the withdrawal of World No. 2 Jannik Sinner and former quarterfinalist Matteo Berrettini, 12 Italians are featured in the main draw this year, led by No. 26 seed Lorenzo Musetti and 2021 semifinalist Lorenzo Sonego. Both will try to become the first Italian finalist at the tournament since Adriano Panatta in 1978.

With a 96-player main draw in the third and final ATP Masters 1000 on clay, which runs through May 19, the top 32 are seeded and have received byes into the second round. Thus, Wednesday’s order of play called for 16 ATP matches spread throughout the day across Foro Italico. There were some familiar names and a few surprises along the way before late-afternoon rain showers brought play to a halt for about 90 minutes. The rain returned about 8 p.m., this time for good. Play was finally called for the day at 10 p.m.

Qualifier Monteiro making most of his opportunity

Brazilian qualifier Thiago Monteiro put together a solid performance to defeat Gaël Monfils of France, 6-2, 7-5, in an hour and 27 minutes on Pietrangeli. The 106th-ranked Monteiro hit one of his 20 winners to set up match point and beat the 38th-ranked Monfils with his seventh ace. Monteiro converted three of five break points and outpointed Monfils 63-45. It was his third career win against the 37-year-old Frenchman.

The victory, Monteiro’s third main-draw Masters 1000 win in the past fortnight, advanced him to play No. 32 seed Jordan Thompson of Australia in the second round. Tuesday’s triumph also boosted Monteiro to No. 94 in the PIF ATP Live Rankings.

“I think I just believe in myself more,” Monteiro said in a courtside interview after his win, when asked why he’s put together such good results on clay recently, including a big win in Madrid against then-World No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece. “I’ve been working hard, even before Madrid. I didn’t have some of the results I expected, but I’ve been believing in the day-by-day work. Hard work always pays off. I’m feeling great on court. … I’m working hard to keep this level.”

Darderi earns first ATP Tour win on home soil

Luciano Darderi, one of a dozen Italian men appearing in Rome, earned his first ATP Tour victory in Italy on Wednesday – and it was a satisfying one in his tournament debut. The 54th-ranked Darderi rallied from a break down in the final set to defeat No. 126 Denis Shapovalov of Canada, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 7-6 (4), in three hours and nine minutes on Campo Centrale. Once Shapovalov netted a drop-shot attempt on match point in the decisive tie-break, Darderi raised his arms in celebration, waved at the appreciative crowd and raced over to sign a few autographs. It was a big moment of joy for him to savor.

The 22-year-old born in Villa Gesell, Argentina, has now earned 13 of his 14 career ATP Tour wins this season, including a title at Cordoba and a semifinal run in Houston. Against Shapovalov, Darderi overcame 49 winners from the 25-year-old Canadian to hit 21 of his own. He benefited from 64 unforced errors by his opponent and outscored him 125-117. Next, Darderi will play No. 28 seed Mariano Navone of Argentina.

Swan song in Rome bittersweet for Schwartzman

Just two days, after he announced he intended to retire next year at a tournament in Argentina, 31-year-old Diego Schwartzman qualified for his last Internazionali BNL d’Italia main draw.

The Argentine Schwartzman, a former World No. 8 who is now ranked 142nd, defeated Mikhail Kukushkin, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, in a two-hour, 50-minute battle in the final round of qualifying Tuesday to set up a main draw first round match-up against No. 70 Aleksandar Vukic of Australia on Court 2 Wednesday afternoon.

The Argentine entered his match against Vukic with a 10-8 career win-loss record at Foro Italico, where he reached the semifinals in 2019 and his only Masters 1000 championship match a year later. However, Schwartzman’s swan song was bittersweet as Vukic won 6-2, 6-2, in an hour and 32 minutes. The match was interrupted by rain for 90 minutes. Vukic outpointed Schwartzman 71-54.

Afterward, as he walked off the court, Schwartzman waved to the crowd of well wishers and tossed his towels to fans.

Around Foro Italico

First-round winners include: Yannick Hanfmann of Germany, Zhang Zhizhen of China, Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan, Pavel Kotov of Russia, Nuno Borges of Portugal, Flavio Cobolli of Italy, Alexander Shevchenko of Kazakhstan and Terence Atmane of France.

Hanfmann defeated #NextGenATP Jakub Mensik of the Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-2, while Zhang beat Daniel Elahi Galan of Colombia, 6-2, 7-5. Nishioka won over Sebastian Ofner of Austria, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (4), while Kotov was victorious against #NextGenATP American Alex Michelsen, 6-1, 6-1.

Borges beat Pedro Martinez of Spain, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (8), after saving two match points in the longest match of the day (3:38), while Cobolli defeated German qualifier Maximilian Marterer, 6-4, 6-2, for his first tour-level win in Italy since 2021. Shevchenko beat Fabian Marozsan of Hungary, 6-3, 6-2, and Atmane eliminated American Christopher Eubanks, 6-4, 6-4.

Wednesday’s Foro Italico results

Thursday’s Foro Italico order of play

By the numbers

Rafael Nadal, 37, who has won a record 10 Italian Open titles and compiled a 69-8 win-loss record, will open against 24-year-old qualifier Zizou Bergs of Belgium, ranked No. 108, who is making his Rome debut on Thursday.

“Quotable …”

“It is always a great feeling [to] be playing here. The crowd here is very passionate. Amazing matches with Coria, with Roger the first two times I played here. Then I was able to achieve that tournament a lot of times. It is a tournament that is part of the history of our sport. It is a very traditional, important tournament in our Tour. I’m excited and feel lucky to be playing here again at this stage of my career. I am motivated for tomorrow and for the tournament.”

Rafael Nadal, during his pre-tournament news conference on Wednesday.