Nadal seeks to avenge Madrid loss
The firsts continue for Novak Djokovic in his duels with Rafael Nadal. Prior to this year, he'd never beaten Rafa in a final. Indian Wells and Miami changed that. Prior to this year, he'd never topped Rafa on clay. Madrid, on Sunday, changed that.
The ultimate, of course, would be downing Nadal over the best-of-five sets at the French Open, where conditions are noticeably slower. Nadal and Djokovic, for now, must be the favorites to meet in yet another Masters finale at this week's Rome Masters. And we could have another Roger-Rafa semi.
Here's a breakdown of the draw.
No. 1 Rafael Nadal
We were all looking forward to a Rafa-Juan Martin del Potro third-round clash in Madrid. Unfortunately del Potro withdrew with an injured hip.
Could Thomaz Bellucci test Nadal early at a clay-court event? He's likely Nadal's first opponent.
However, this is Rome, where the conditions aren't as amenable to his game, so the answer is "no."
No. 2 Novak Djokovic
Even though dangerous clay-court players Nicolas Almagro and Stanislas Wawrinka lie in Djokovic's section, it's at the stage now where you know the Serb will cruise. He's gone to another level. Wawrinka is slumping for the first time since teaming with Peter Lundgren, and the still-enigmatic Almagro fell in his Madrid opener. Djokovic gets a chance to ease into the tournament, landing a qualifier. So that's likely win No. 33 in a row to begin 2011.
No. 3 Roger Federer
Federer won't be overly disappointed with the way he played against Nadal in the Madrid semifinals Saturday. From 4-2 down in the opening set, Federer significantly lifted his game, often leaving Nadal as a spectator, to win the opener.
Sadly for Fed fans, he couldn't quite keep it up.
Federer and Nadal should meet in the semis. The lone hint of bother for the Swiss comes in the quarterfinals in the shape of either Gael Monfils or Tomas Berdych.
No. 4 Andy Murray
When the Scot eased his way into the Monte Carlo semifinals and proceeded to take a set from Nadal, his post-Australian Open malaise appeared to be over. But an elbow injury dampened spirits, and Murray was overpowered by Bellucci in Madrid.
Bellucci is usually the kind of player Murray gobbles up.
Rome hasn't been kind to the Scot -- it's the only Masters event where he's failed to reach the quarterfinals. His section is filled with players who can dazzle or implode: Xavier Malisse, Nikolay Davydenko and the dipping Alexandr Dolgopolov.
For a third straight tournament, Murray might meet Gilles Simon. Simon and Murray contested a tight three-set match in Madrid, with Murray's bagel in the third a little misleading.
No. 5 Robin Soderling
Soderling's partnership with Claudio Pistolesi didn't last very long, did it? In fairness to the Italian, Soderling has been injured for much of 2011.
Soderling made progress by winning two matches in Madrid, but his shortcomings were exposed by Federer, not for the first time, in the quarterfinals.
Rome's slower environs will help the Swede, but he'll have to be sharp immediately, playing Fernando Verdasco. Verdasco, fading badly, nonetheless reached last year's semifinals and might wake up at any time.
No. 6 David Ferrer
Ferrer's losses in three clay-court tournaments in 2011 have come against Nadal (twice) and Djokovic. In short, it takes the best to beat him on dirt.
The good news for Ferrer, last year's finalist, is that there's absolutely nothing to trouble him until the quarterfinals. The bad news is that once there, Nadal is waiting.
No. 7 Tomas Berdych
Berdych hasn't hit the heights of last spring and early summer, when he ventured to the French Open semifinals and Wimbledon final. But he's been consistent, achieving the quarterfinals or better in seven of his nine tournaments in 2011. Those days of losing in the first or second round are gone.
Berdych should get to the quarters again. Second-round opponent Juan Monaco is struggling, and Gael Monfils isn't close to top form after returning from a wrist injury.
No. 8 Jurgen Melzer
Melzer blew a golden opportunity in Madrid. Given a nice path to the quarterfinals, he couldn't get past qualifier Daniel Gimeno-Traver -- who has no weapons -- in the second round.
In Rome, he received another nice draw.
No one is quite sure how Melzer will perform in any match, yet if he's on, the quarterfinals are well within reach. Simon figures to be his biggest threat.
Semifinal predictions: Nadal def. Federer; Djokovic def. Simon.
Final: Nadal def. Djokovic.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.