Peter Bodo: Italian Open

You have to hand it to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. After a few weeks, you had to wonder whether either of them was even capable of making the French Open final, never mind meeting his counterpart. But they resurrected the narrative, and once again, set tennis fans to salivating over the prospect of Rafa vs. Nole at Roland Garros.

They did it by playing a magnificent Italian Open final Sunday in Rome, with ATP No. 2 Djokovic pulling off the upset of world No. 1 Nadal, 4-6, 6-3. 6-3. An awful lot can happen to either of these fellas over the next three weeks, not all of it good. But they’ve certainly set the stage for a potential clash that might ultimately inspire comparisons with Nadal vs. Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open or Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe at Roland Garros.

Here are some of the takeaways from the Rome final:

1. Djokovic has now won four in a row vs. Nadal, all of them finals. Remember how Nadal fans used to gloat about Rafa being in Federer’s head? Well, here’s a good example of karma at work. Djokovic is the only player whom Nadal really seems to fear (all other things being equal), and there are some really good reasons for that. Which brings us to the next point.

2. Djokovic is the only player on the tour who can keep Nadal from putting him into a defensive posture from which there is no escape. Nadal specializes in getting his opponents on a string and jerking them all over the court, usually wider and wider and deeper and deeper. But Djokovic’s superior athleticism and his penchant for the hard, flat ball can translate to instant offense. He can hurt Nadal from a different zip code if need be, and that forces Nadal out of the patterns he likes to impose.

3. Nadal is vulnerable to Djokovic’s outstanding serve return. As a returner, Djokovic is more inclined than Nadal to give the ball a ride. When he sees a second serve coming, his instinct is to use the return to take control of the rally. Nadal had an outstanding day in the service game, at least in terms of putting his first serve into play (75 percent). But Djokovic won 13 points off the 23 second serves hit by Nadal. In the end, Nadal won just 52 percent of the points he served, while Djokovic won 65 percent of his own.

4. Djokovic is especially dangerous when he’s inspired. Before Djokovic experienced his 2011 makeover, he was developing a reputation as a spectacularly talented underachiever. He seemed happy to noodle around, a third wheel to the ruling duo of Nadal and Federer. Then in 2011, Djokovic showed what he’s capable of when he puts his mind -- and heart -- into it.

Last week, Djokovic dedicated his wins to the victims of the terrible floods that swept through the Balkans, including his home town of Belgrade. The tragic events provided Djokovic with emotional fuel that helped him win -- hence the heart in the clay after he defeated Nadal. He was declaring his solidarity. The downside, of course, is that when he’s uninspired, Djokovic is less dangerous. Nadal, who is -- by far -- the most diligent and motivated of players, has an advantage in this regard. Neither his highs nor his lows are as conspicuous as those of Djokovic.

And here’s an important caveat to this theme: The stade Roland Garros isn’t merely Nadal’s favorite facility, it’s his castle. A lot has been made of the fact that he uncharacteristically won only one of the Euroclay events this spring, but really, how many times does Nadal have to win Monte Carlo, anyway? Those losses won’t amount to a hill of beans for Nadal -- if he retains his French Open crown. Djokovic may be more theatrical when it comes to the emotional game, but don’t for a moment imagine that Nadal isn’t also subject to bouts of inspiration.

5. Djokovic closed out Nadal in that third set with a flurry of tennis as near perfect as anyone can expect. But if that were the final of Roland Garros, the end of that set probably would have marked just a little better than the midway point of the match (on the theory that even at the worst of times, these guys are good for a long five-setter).
The way things are shaping up in Rome, a lot of quality pros will spend less time during this next, quiet week kicking back and enjoying Paris than obsessing about whether to make those reservations for the Tour d’Argent on the early or late side.

In recent years, the major question heading into the French Open was, “Which poor ATP schmo is destined to get crushed in the final by Rafael Nadal this year?” But now, whether Nadal will survive to reach the final is as legitimate a query as wondering whether any French man or woman will last more than two rounds.

Nobody, but nobody, among the ATP or WTA elites seems destined to embark upon the second Grand Slam of the year with a full head of steam. Significant question marks hover like storm clouds over every one of them. Here’s the short version:

ATP No. 1 and French Open top seed Nadal: Even if Nadal wins in Rome, completing yet another set of back-to-back wins in Masters 1000 events (he won in Madrid last week), his form since the very start of the clay season has been, at best, ragged -- at least by the standard he himself set and maintained for years until this spring. Make no mistake: Those early Euroclay losses to David Ferrer (Monte Carlo) and Nicolas Almagro (Barcelona) have shaken him, and although Nadal is winning, he’s been struggling -- and providing infusions of hope to all his rivals.

WTA No. 1 Serena Williams is 32 years old and had to pull out of Madrid last week with a nagging thigh injury. Clay has never been her preferred surface, especially when it comes to the two-week grind of Roland Garros -- where she’s collected just two of her 17 Grand Slam titles. It’s never easy for Williams in Paris; it’s as simple as that.

ATP No. 2 Novak Djokovic made no secret of his main ambition for 2014, which is to win the French Open and complete his career Grand Slam. He got off to a rocky start this year but seemed to build momentum by winning the two U.S. hard-court Masters events.

Since then, though, he’s stalled -- partly because of a sore right wrist. He took a loss to Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and pulled out of Madrid to rest and rehab that right wrist. Just how that joint holds up to the stress of two weeks of five-set matches looms as a major question.

WTA No. 2 Li Na won this tournament a few years ago, and as the winner of the Australian Open, she’s the only woman who could complete a calendar-year Grand Slam. Whoa! Li has also been puzzlingly inconsistent. You just can’t count on her one way or the other.

ATP No. 3 Stan Wawrinka stepped up in Monte Carlo and launched his spring campaign with a big win in the final over Federer. Since then, though, he’s been upset in the first round of Madrid by emerging Austrian talent -- but still just No. 70 -- Dominic Thiem. He also lost in the third round at Rome to 36-year-old Tommy Haas. Well, nobody can say he won’t be well-rested for Paris anyway.

WTA No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska has had a lot of trouble finding her A-game in semis and finals lately. And No. 7 Maria Sharapova has become something of a nemesis, with straight-set wins over Radwanska in their two recent meetings on clay.

ATP No. 4 Federer is a new dad again, and his plan to get a few matches in before Paris went afoul in Rome, where he was upset in the second round (but his first match, thanks to a bye) by Frenchman Jeremy Chardy. But Federer did reach the final in Monte Carlo, and he has all the experience in the world. And everything at this stage in his career is gravy -- which basically means, “Who knows?”

WTA No. 4 Victoria Azarenka is entered in Roland Garros, but she hasn’t played because of a foot injury since the Indian Wells combined Premier event.

WTA No. 7 Maria Sharapova was generating a lot of buzz until this week thanks to that outstanding record on clay. Only Serena Williams had beaten her on the red stuff since 2011. However, Sharapova has been winning but struggling and relying on her grit and determination rather than her superior shot-making or strategy. It all caught up to her in Rome the other day, where she was beaten convincingly by another former French Open champ, Ana Ivanovic.

That loss will leave a bad taste in Sharapova’s mouth in the coming week, and her up-and-down nature lately suggests that she may have trouble playing consistent winning tennis over two weeks in Paris. But she’ll have this consolation in the coming days: Many of her fellow stars will be in a similar quagmire.