The clay season is heating up.
That could have been the only logical reaction to the results page of the 2011 Rome Masters. There are two tantalising matchups up for the eyes tonight, and something about them suggests they are not just going to be foregone affairs.
So often, we have witnessed the golden run of a streaker come to an end—played well to beat three great guys, but just couldn’t do it against the fourth. But there is always a first time.
Rafael Nadal vs Richard Gasquet:
A lineup of this sort for Nadal about a year or two ago would have come like R&B to his ears—a quick and easy hit for a win. What seeing these two names in the same box doesn't reveal, however, is the fact that Gasquet just defeated Roger Federer two days ago—in a match, it has to be said, played excellently by the Swiss.
The Frenchman then went on last night to down Tomas Berdych, another fiery player of recent times, in three sets. Is Gasquet finally going to fulfil the potential first explosively revealed at Monte Carlo in 2005 (when he beat Federer last)? For the sober minded, he did indeed go on to lose to Rafael Nadal that time, too.
It isn't as if Nadal is playing like he used to in 2005, however. He has been more passive, almost tentative, and his first match against Italian Lapentzi was just awkward beyond imagination. It's fair to say, however well he has gone on in his last two wins over Lopez and Cilic, that he is looking just that tad bit more vulnerable.
Gasquet has an excellent one-handed backhand, too, so it's likely Nadal wouldn't be going in that way with just any sort of half-hearted forehand looking to neutralise the rally. The smart money, nonetheless, is on the Spaniard in straights.
Novak Djokovic vs Andy Murray:
This one, on the other hand, looks like the billing it is supposed to, and probably will, live up to. Djokovic and Murray are legitimate top-fourers, and in the Serb's case, a legitimate world No. 1 in 2011.
With a 36-match winning streak he just doesn't seem to be slowing down—indeed, the very fact of this streak (just five shy of the 41 wins Federer compiled, at his height, in 2006-07) is simply mind-blowing. When will it end? It is hard to say, althought it seems to be coming fairly soon, with Rome and Paris very much the citadels of Nadal. Against Murray tonight it would take vintage consistency, as well as possibly that something extra, to get the job done.
Things may get easier, if he finds Murray slightly out of shape, a possibility which would seem at odds with the motif of revenge and redemption, which the Scot should try his best to animate. Since suffering his straight sets drubbing at the hands of Djokovic in Melbourne, Murray has only managed one semifinal appearance and a handful of first-round exits.
But the positives, first: the match in Melbourne wasn't ever nearly as dominant by Djokovic as the score might suggest, and indeed Murray managed to make it relatively close.
Moreover, that was played on a hard court which allowed for some ultra smooth shotmaking—none of which is quite as predictable on Roman clay courts. The Foro Italico is slow enough, one feels, to make this match, between two fabulous baseliners, just equal enough, ceteris paribus, to be quite mouth-watering.
So, who might one intelligently pick for a meeting in Sunday's final? The name of Nadal would not be unfamiliar, although it is not quite as steadfast as one might imagine. Whom he, or Gasquet (if the Frenchman should find the tennis of his life and afterlife) might face, is slightly less watertight-sure. But one suspects we have in store yet another edition of Djokovic-Nadal in 2011.