What Rome means to the French Open
May, 13, 2014
By Richard Pagliaro | ESPN.com
Rome is the red clay test track where Rafael Nadal finds his stride tuning up for annual Roland Garros title runs.
Clay-court tennis "requires the speed of a sprinter, sharp off the blocks, and the stamina of a marathon runner. You stop, start, stop, start. And you keep doing it over two, three, four sometimes as much as five hours," Nadal has said.
The world No. 1’s title trips in the Eternal City have helped him set a consistent pace in Paris: Six of the seven years Rafa has won Rome, he's gone on to rule Roland Garros. The one exception was 2009 when Nadal did not drop a set winning Rome, including a 6-1, 6-0 thrashing of then-No. 27 Robin Soderling in the round of 16 only to suffer a shocking 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2) upset to the hard-hitting Swede weeks later in the Roland Garros round of 16.
Madrid is billed as the highest capital city of any major European nation, which creates quicker conditions that can benefit bigger hitters and aggressive baseliners. The altitude in Rome is closer aligned to that of Paris, producing a similar bounce, though players must adjust to a different ball brand: Dunlop is the ball used in Rome and Babolat is the official ball of the French Open.
Both tournaments attract the top players, but do results at the season's final clay-court Masters event predict a run of success in the City of Light?
The short answer is not often -- with the obvious exception of the King of Clay. Several players racking up wins in the Italian capital have made deep runs at Roland Garros, but capturing both events in the same season is a red clay rarity.
Before Nadal's inaugural completion of the Rome-Roland Garros double in 2005 when he outdueled French Open finalist Guillermo Coria in a classic 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6) victory in the Rome title match before defeating Mariano Puerta in the French Open final, only two men -- Jim Courier in 1992 and Thomas Muster in 1995 -- swept both titles in succession in the prior 15 years. (Interestingly, Courier defeated Nadal's longtime manager and former clay-court standout, Carlos Costa, in the '92 Rome final.)
Hall of Famer Gustavo Kuerten came close to pulling off the dirt double: He was Rome runner-up in both 2000 and 2001 and went on to win Roland Garros both years. On the men's side, the one-handed backhand has played well in the Foro Italico. Fourteen of the past 20 Rome finals have featured at least one man wielding a one-hander.
Women sliding to the Rome title have typically found triumph in Paris to be elusive. Since Monica Seles swept both championships in 1990, only two women -- Serena Williams in 2002 and again in 2013 and Maria Sharapova in 2012 -- have achieved the feat.
Elite women players have produced disparate results in their efforts to back up Rome results in Paris.
Consider Conchita Martinez, who won a record four consecutive Rome titles from 1993 to 1996 and reached the Roland Garros semifinals in three of those four years. In contrast, Amelie Mauresmo reached the Rome final five times in a six-year span from 2000 to 2005, yet sometimes shrunk playing beneath the immense weight of expectation of her home major. The Frenchwoman never surpassed the Roland Garros quarterfinals.
Sometimes deep runs in Rome signal French Open success to come.
In 2009, Svetlana Kuznetsova knocked off seeds Flavia Pennetta, Jelena Jankovic and Victoria Azarenka to reach the Rome final before losing to world No. 1 Dinara Safina 6-3, 6-2. It foreshadowed a French Open final rematch: Weeks later, Kuznetsova beat Safina 6-4, 6-2, to claim her second career Grand Slam title in Paris.
The following year, Francesca Schiavone didn't exactly jump-start her inspired trek to the Roland Garros title with an impressive result in her homeland. Schiavone fell meekly in the second round to Spanish lefthander Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez 6-2, 6-2. Weeks later, the animated Italian knocked off four top-15-ranked players in straight sets -- Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki, Elena Dementieva and Samantha Stosur -- to make history as the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam singles championship at Roland Garros.
Of course, champions don't let the field -- or prior results in the race up to Roland Garros -- impact their focus on the French Open finish line.
"The lady in the mirror is the ultimate opponent for me," Serena said after winning Rome last May. "I'm going to try and win every match and be really cautious going for every point."