Report card: top five women in Rome

Here are the women with the best results last week in Rome.

Elena Svitolina A+
In Rome, in 2017, Svitolina finally rose, winning the tournament. Two weeks later in Paris, she backed off, was nervous and she lost early. But she never stopped trying. In 2018, last week, she played brilliantly. She is so quick, so powerful, and she is very smart. She won the event fairly easily, crushing Simona Halep in the final. Now, once again, she has a legitimate chance to win a Grand Slam at Roland Garros. But there will be pressure, serious pressure …

Simona Halep A
Props to beating Maria Sharapova in the semis. She could have folded but she did not, she ripped her shots and she jumped on it. Unfortunately, in the final, Halep was exhausted. Her legs were very heavy, and she couldn’t run fast enough against Svitolina. Still, the No. 1 Halep was more than respectable, so for the “millionth” time, she has a shot to win her first Grand Slam. If she remains focused …  

Maria Sharapova B+
Even though Sharapova lost in the semis against Halep, she played substantially better last week. Finally. She took a breath, she hustled, she was patient when she could. Yes, she can be erratic and still, a little off. She won Roland Garros twice. So, when she arrives in Paris, she may not win, but she will push, hard. There, her confidence will return. 

Anett Kontaveit B+
Out of almost nowhere, Kontaveit reached the semis, upsetting CoCo Vandeweghe, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams, and Caro Wozniacki before losing to Svitolina. On clay, Kontaveit looks pretty darn good. So, at RG in Paris, she could be a real factor.

Jelena Ostapenko B
Believe it or not, the 2017 Roland Garros champion is getting better. She has had a tough year, but she did reach the final in Miami on hardcourts. In Rome last week, she did beat Jo Konta, and then, went down against Sharapova 7-5 in the third. Ostapenko was very close to that win. While the 20-year-old person can blast the ball from both wings, she has to be a little more comfortable with staying in longer rallies. She did win Paris last year, smoking the ball, so maybe she can do it again.

Report card: top five men in Rome

Here are the men with the best results last week in Rome.

Rafa Nadal A+
The Spaniard can be so-so at times, and he knows that, and he says that, even if we don’t always believe him. On clay, when he is on top of his game, he is control 95 percent of the time. When he was close to losing the final to Alexander Zverev, he stepped up, smacked his forehand and weaker backhand, and he found his range. He is super smart and driven. Nadal will come into Roland Garros this week and be a serious favored to win it again: that would be 11 times. Wow!

Alexander Zverev A-
The German was pretty close to winning Rome, moving forward, pounding his backhand and serving big. The 21-year-old has had a terrific three weeks, beating 13 different players, knocking down a few of the best. But as Zverev has said, he was so close to put down Nadal for the first time but coulnd’t make it happen at the end of the match. With a break in the third, he lost his fire. Can he win in Paris? That is unsure.

Novak Djokovic B+
At least the former No. 1 reached the semis. While he lost against Nadal, he was finally a little bit confident and focused. He may not love clay, but he is a very good player from top to bottom. As long as he stays healthy, he will return to the top 10, then into the top 5, but after that, to win a Grand Slam this year? The jury is out.

Marin Cilic B+
The Croat had a very good week in Rome. Yes, he didn’t win, but at least he hustled and changed his tactics. Reaching the semis on clay makes Cilic smile.

Kei Nishikori B
The Japanese also had a good week, not retiring, staying in there. He never gave up. He and Djokovic had some fun rallies, and coming up to Roland Garros, I am sure they will be practicing for many hours.

Rome: Once again, Nadal vs. Djokovic, Sharapova vs. Halep

On Saturday, in Rome, on the dirt, the winners will be darn happy, and the losers will put their heads down and become disappointed. That always happens to intense players, that is. When they are great players, they have to think about what went wrong, and how they will fix it. The top players are always thinking. so this weekend in Italy, they will battle, at least for a while, and at the end, they will either make the shots, or fly away to Paris.

To start on Saturday, Elena Svitolina will go up against Anett Kontaveit. Svitolina is a tough person, she is very strong, and she belts it. The 22-year-old Kontaveit is gradually learning, and she can be very steady, except that she has had a so-so year. This week, she has put together a couple terrific wins, like bashing Caro Wozniacki, and overcoming Venus Williams. But the same goes with Svitolina, who jumped over Angie Kerber, who is a very steady person. The No. 4 Svitolina is ready to grind Kontaveit until she will slip away.    

Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic will face off for the 51st time. The Serbian has won 26 times, and the Spaniard has won 24 times. On clay, Nadal has won it 15 times and Djokovic has won seven times. Clearly, Nadal is better on clay than anyone. On the hardcourts, Djokovic is better than Nadal. But this is on clay, and while Mr. Novak has played better for the first time this year, still, as he has said, he still has a long way to go. Of course, when Djokovic became hurt last year, and his steely legs began to slip, and then, he grew nervous and upset. This week, Djokovic has been steady and a little more confident. But Nadal is cracking his forehand — as always — his serves are spot on, and his up and down backhand has been almost superior this week. On clay, he will attempt to pound Djokovic until he falls down.

Right after that, No. 1 Simona Halep will go up against Maria Sharapova. Let us hope that it will be a phenomenal match, but the American-Russian just played for more than three hours when she edged Jelena Ostapenko on Friday. While she is pleased because her body isn’t too sore, still, she can get tired the next day. Sharapova has been better that Halep, on clay, because a few years ago, because at the 2014 Roland Garros final a few years ago, it was darn close in the third set. At 4-4, Halep began to push, while Sharapova attacked her again and again, and then she won it.

Yes, Halep never gives up, and now, at the non-Slams, she will swing hard. She has yet to win a Grand Slam, though, and that is painful. But this week, in Rome, she is more calm and one way or another, she will force Sharapova to run all day. Halep is likely the favorite in Rome on Saturday. But there should be some amazing points.   

The last match will be between Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev. Cilic doesn’t love clay, but he tries, he can be steady, and the tall man can smoke his serves and his forehand. In the past few weeks, the young man Zverev has played tremendous ball. He is steady, he can nail his forehand and his backhand, down the line, crosscourt, in the middle — he rarely misses it. Zverev won Madrid last week and now he has a chance to reach the final again. He might be tired, but he wants it. So does everyone … who wants it more?

Sloane Stephens finds her footing on clay but falls to Garcia

American Sloane Stephens said this week that she understands how to play better on clay now. She used to get frustrated at times, but now she is learning what she needs to succeed. However, she has to be more tolerant. On Wednesday in Rome, she knocked down Kaia Kanepi 6-0 5-7 6-4.

But, she couldn’t extend the magic against Caroline Garcia, losing 6-1 7-6(7). Garcia has improved huge amount over the past year — in the singles, that is. Both of them can sit back and rally for ages. They are both very accurate, rarely missing some easy shots. Eventually, however, they can swing hard and try to kiss the lines. This match can go for two and half hours. At the end, whomever is willing to go for it and not push the balls back, she will take it, with Stephens or Garcia.
Simona Halep smoked Naomi Osaka pretty quickly and then got a walkover when Madison Keys pulled out. That will keep her atop the WTA rankings.

Venus Williams overcame Elena Vesnina 6-2 4-6 7-5, as the Russian faltered in the last games. But Anett Kontaviet took down Venus 6-2 7-6(3) in the third round. Kontaviet aslo knocked Venus out of Madrid last week.

The amazing thing is for the first time, or very rarely, over the past 20 years, that Venus decided she could play doubles without Serena. Unfortunately, she picked Keys, who withdrew from singles and doubles, citing a rib injury.

On the rise is Maria Sharapova, who dispatched Gavrilova in straight sets. There was no doubt that Sharapova would find her form. Now, the question is can she get back into the mix of the top 5. If Sharapova wins a few more matches, she will be in the top 32, which will help at Roland Garros.

Here is a marathon when Daria Gavrilova took out Garbine Muguruza 5-7 6-2 7-6(6). Muguruza had a few match points and she couldn’t convert. She rarely chokes, and Gavrilova kept pushing her. I am just not sure that the former RG champ Muguruza can take the Paris title again.

Two other notable matches with the guys on Wednesday: Kei Nishikori beat Grigor Dimitrov 7-6(4) 5-7 6-4 in nearly three hours. Good for Nishikori, staying in there, going backhand versus backhand, hitting it hard down the line. Nishikori continued to show he is improving when healthy, pummeling Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-1 6-2 in the third round.
Props to Fabio Fognini, who out-hit Dominic Thiem and then sailing through Peter Gojowczyk. Next up is Rafa Nadal who had no problem with Canada’s newest top player Denis Shapovalov. They have had some classic matches over the years, and they might do that again.

Zverev grabs Madrid; Nadal hopes to rebound in Rome

What an incredible week for Alexandra Zverev, who won Madrid, hands down. In the final, he out hit Dominic Thiem in straight sets. In the past two weeks, he has been not only more patient, but he had a good idea of where the balls are coming from and is setting up his replies better. Everything was working in Spain, as he smacked his first serves and he leapt on top of his forehand and backhand. He kept is focus and then went for big shots.

Zverev has won three ATP 1000 Masters Series crowns. That means that he is right there to become No. 1 pretty soon. Not immediately, but soon enough, assuming that he stays healthy and he continues to improve.

Last year, Zverev won Rome. This week, he will be there again. Can he actually grab it once again? Possibly, but remember that last week, Rafa Nadal actually lost, going down against Thiem. Nadal was riding a record 50-set winning streak on the dirt. But eventually, he played against another excellent player — like Thiem — and he was off a little bit. That’s all it took.

The good thing for Nadal is that he had a few days to rest. He won Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and then he went to Madrid. That is a lot of matches. We would imagine that he isn’t injured, so when he comes to Rome, he will be itching to dominate again. Nadal has won Rome seven times. That is a tremendous amount. Because of that, even though Zverev just won Madrid, Nadal is the favorite. However, with Zverev rising quickly, once again, the Spaniard Nadal has to show him that he can contain him. 

On Sunday in Rome, three Americans won: Jack Sock, Ryan Harrison and Steve Johnson, who beat Stan Wawrinka. That’s a fine win by Johnson.

Wawrinka just returned from a run of limited play, competing in only his fifth tournament this year. It is admirable that the three-time major champion Wawrinka didn’t retire, because he pulled out a few times this season because he wanted to play so badly, but his body has failed. Hopefully, he feels 100 percent. Just wait until he gets to Roland Garros, he loves that tournament.

Arrivederci Roberta!
Among the women, played her last WTA match in her country’s capital, Rome. She fell to Aleksandra Krunic in the first round  The Italian has always fought, she liked to mix it up and spin it. The 35-year-old did reach a Grand Slam final, at the US Open, and she had a fantastic career. She won’t go very far this week, but still, she will show them off.

Another Italian is going to retire this year as Francesca Schiavone is 37 years old and it is time to wave goodbye. She said he’s aiming for the end of the year. But for sure, she put together some fantastic matches over the past 20 years, especially at Roland Garros eight years ago, when she won it. She played lights out.

Sloane Stephens will play at night. She didn’t play great last week. It is time to dig down and commit to playing tough. … The same goes with CoCo Vandeweghe, who came very close to winning Stuttgart, but she couldn’t do it. Now she will attempt to do shine in Rome. She has to face Anett Kontaveit, who is pretty young, but she is very talented. Another toss up. … American Danielle Collins qualified, and she will face Camila Giorgi in the first round on Monday. I still cannot believe that she is the top 50 now. Last year, she was out of the top 100. She is very committed.

Bang it up: Pliskova vs Kvitova, and Isner vs A. Zverev

It’s all about the quarters in Madrid. Eight matches, women and men, so if you get to go and watch, leave early, very early, and stay late, because if you want to catch all of them. You will see at least two terrific matches. Or all of them.  

In Madrid on Friday, there are two fascinating contests, Karolina Pliskova versus Petra Kvitova, and John Isner versus Alexander Zverev. The WTA women will start first, and Pliskova and Kvitova have been playing extremely well over the past two weeks. They are both big hitters, forehands and backhands, and they hustle. They are very strong physically, but even though they are faster than they used to be, but they aren’t exactly speedy. However, Pliskova has a massive first serve, and Kvitová’s is pretty good, too, with her speedy first serve and a good kicker. 

Kvitova is determined to win another Grand Slam. She has two, at Wimbledon, but not at Roland Garros. Pliskova has yet to win a major, but she has come close. But on clay? Both of them have put together some great wins, on the hardcourts and the grass. Maybe they are finally changing their clay court games and figuring out better tactics. 

On Thursday, Pliskova ended No. 1 Simona Halep run with a 6-4 6-3 win. That was extremely impressive. Listen to this: “My forehand was working. I think I played one of my best matches this year for sure, and for sure on clay in my life,” Pliskova said. 

The two Czechs are good friends so they know each other up and down. Is it a tossup, on clay? Possibly, but Pliskova is a slight favorite to win.

It’s a rematch between Isner versus Zverev. At the beginning of April, Isner beat Zverev 6-7(4) 6-4 6-4 for the Miami title on a hardcourt. It was the best tournament, ever for John. The very tall man is older, and Zverev is 12 years younger.

But now, everyone is playing on clay. Zverev has won three clay courts, in Munich (twice) and at the ATP Masters 1000 Rome last year. That was huge, because almost a year ago, in Italy, he beat Isner in the semis and Novak Djokovic in the final. He was saying afterwards that he had a legitimate chance to win Roland Garros. But in the first round, Zverev was very frustrated, a little bit nervous, and he could not contain himself, losing in four sets to Fernando Verdasco. He was ticked off.

But the 21-year-old keeps on churning. This month, and next month, he has to be stoical, in Madrid, Rome and RG. Look at Rafa Nadal. On clay, he always grinds, he rarely gets mad when he is a little off. He changes, he mixes it up, he doesn’t just wail away when he cannot keep the ball inside the lines. The German Zverev is ranked No. 3, his forehand and backhand are immense, but his returns are marginal. I am sure they will get better, gradually, but it will take time. 

When he faces Isner again, at least he can return on clay, at least during the second serves. The same goes with the American Isner, who has slightly improved his returns over the past 10 years. Isner has improved his backhand, which is stronger and harder. Of course, he has a huge first serve, delivering ace after ace, to compliment his monumental forehand. When he gets to the net, and he is right on top of it, he can put it away.

Isner has won just one clay court tournament, in Houston, in 2013. Good for him, but the ATP Masters bring all the best players. To win it here, that would be surprising. However, he is much more confident now than he was a couple months ago. He is into it again. Still, Zverev is the favorite, if he doesn’t smash his racket and throw it out of the stadium. 

The Canadians: Raonic and Shapovalov liking clay, at least today

It was a very big day, in Madrid, with Milos Raonic knocking down  Grigor Dimitrov 7-5 3-6 6-3. Then, the 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov survived Benoit Paire 7-6(5) 4-6 6-4. Both of them don’t love the dirt, but then again, when you win, you will think, “Hmmm, maybe I actually really love clay.” 

That is what happens, when month after month, you are sliding, digging and learning. If you live in Canada, which both of them do, it is way north, so during the year, it is pretty cold for six months, so to play outside, that is almost impossible. You have to play inside, and it is very rare to find clay courts. It must be a solid 95 percent of the courts are hard. So, for the Canadian players, it is unusual that they really know how to hit deep and hard on the clay.
However, on certain days, they remember how to construct points, be patient and never give in. Remember that the Spaniards are addicted to the clay, they play for months, all over the place, when it is warm, and they win a lot, such as Rafa Nadal, who has won everything.

Both 27-year-old Raonic and 19-year-old Shapovalov are huge hitters, with big the forehands and first serves. During the European swing, they have to think and listen. Apparently, they did on Tuesday. 

The thing about Raonic is that over the year and a half — or even longer — injuries slows him down. He is a damn good player when he is on the court, But when he retires, or he pulls out, then his frustration mounts. More than two weeks ago, he pulled out from Monte Carlo due to a right knee injury. Will he survive Madrid? I hope so.

Guess what: Raonic and Shapovalov will face off in the next round. That should be a classic match. They know each other pretty well. The young kid never gets nervous, but Raonic does. He must feel the heat as the youngster starts crawling up his back. It will be very interesting contest.

The women
That was a heck of a win by Carla Suarez Navarro, outlasting Elina Svitolina 2-6 7-6(3) 6-4. She won, she wept, because she never backed off and she wants to win in Spain. Over the years, the 29-year-old had a number of excellent matches on clay. Can she actually win a Grand Slam, with her best shot at Roland Garros? I doubt it, but she can go far at Madrid. Three years ago in Rome on clay, she reached the final. She is capabl
No. 1 Simona Halep won, smoking Elise Mertens, but I am sure she was exhausted. The 22-year-old won Lugano, the Fed Cup and  Rabat, before she came over to Madrid. That is a lot of matches. Regardless,  Belgian Mertens is already very good, she is ranked No. 16, and at some point, she will crack the top 10. To do so, though, she has to go deep in Rome and at Roland Garros. That is a huge challenge.

Pliskova grabs big clay win in Stuttgart

Finally, Karolina Pliskova won a tournament, a big tournament, beating CoCo Vandeweghe 7-6 (2), 6-4 in the final at Stuttgart.

Over the past few years, the Czech has been pretty close to win a major, but she hasn’t, and now, she feels like that she is back. 
But with Pliskova, you never, ever know. She is a gigantic hitter, she can smash her forehand and her backhand, and at the net, she can put it away, down low or high up in the sky. Obviously, she is tall, and she will never be super fast, but even last year, she became quicker and more intelligent. Pliskova rarely gets tired, too, because she practices a heck of a lot. Mentally, when she isn’t playing well, she can get very frustrated, and she loses her control. 

But the No. 6 has matured, so during the rest of the season, she will have a chance to win a major. Maybe at Wimbledon, certainly at the US Open, but actually win Roland Garros? That would be pretty surprising. Yes, she won Stuttgart last week, but it is indoors. She’ll be unprotected and in the elements in the three huge events coming up — Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros. That is harder, as it can be very windy, breezy, hot, cold — you name it. Perhaps Pliskova will prevail, but she has to prove it, as she hasn’t won a Grand Slam yet.

At Barcelona, Rafa Nadal crushed Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-2 6-1 in the final. I here that the 19-year-old Tsitsipas is rising, but he has a long way to go.

As many people have said, what to say about Nadal, who is dominating on the clay court. He has won 46 matches in a row, and not only that, but he doesn’t even drop sets. It is somewhat surprising, not because he is better than anyone on the dirt, because even three weeks ago, he was still injured. As Nadal has said, that he should have not started on court in January, at a couple of events, because he wasn’t ready to run and swing. Nadal has always wanted to smash the ball, from the time he was young, but now, he is in the early 30s, and over the past five years, he has had to pull out because his body was totally wrecked. 

Nadal has to be more patient, and diligent, which means that when he goes to Madrid, if he starts to hurt, he should just walk away. Or, if he wins the title in Spain — again — maybe the Spaniard will not play in Rome. In 2013, he won Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and RG. That was his best season, so far.But that was five years ago. Right now, yes, he has improved his backhand and he pushes forward, but still, his body is wearing down.

We all know that when he arrives at Roland Garros (which he has won 10 times, which is mind blowing, he could get hurt again. And then what? Nadal is a huge favorite, anytime, anywhere on clay, but if he twists his knees, or his back, then he might not be able to raise the trophy one more time in Paris. 

Funny quote from the young Greek about facing the legendary Nadal: “I’ve watched him millions of times on TV, but it’s tougher to face him in reality.”

In Stuttgart, Muguruza & Kerber retire

Photo: Mal Taam/MALTphoto

There have been good matches in Stuttgart, and there are some big pullouts. Over the past three-and-a-half months, there have been the vast majority top women who have played — and competed. The great Williams sisters have been able to play, as has Simona Halep, Caro Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Jelena Ostapenkp, Caroline Garcia, Sloane Stephens and Daria Kasatkina, among others. That is a very good thing because over the past 25 years, many of the players have been hurt way too frequently. But now, they are getting smarter, playing less.

However, yesterday in Stuttgart, three major players pulled out: the two-time champion Garbine Muguruza, another two-time champion Angie Kerber, and the up and coming 18-year-old, Marketa Vondrousova. In the same day? That is somewhat brutal. That just started playing on the clay, which is actually better for your knees. Maybe it is just bad luck, or maybe they should have pulled out before they came to Stuttgart. Last weekend, many players played in the Fed Cup. Someone won, some lost, but either way, the Fed Cup is one of the most entertaining events of the year. So, after Sunday, and some players were very tired, with messed-up bodies. The answer: pull out before the tournament and don’t get on the plane. What is the point when you are going to lose so quickly? Just don’t come. It is not worth it, for everyone.

At least there are two very good players who are still in: Karolina Pliskova and CoCo Vandeweghe. Both of them don’t love clay, but they can both of them literally crush the ball.

There is a good piece on WTA’s website about the former five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova. She lost a tough match against Garcia 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-4. Is Sharapova struggling? Yes, a bit, because over the past year, she has been so-so. Frequent injuries could be the cause.

Sharapova is close to becoming more consistent, more patient, more emotionally stable on court. To succeed, she needs to be happy and mentally locked in.

Sharapova decided to let go of her longtime coach, Sven Groeneveld, last month, and now she is reunited with Thomas Hogstedt, another long-time coach. Will they stick? Who knows. In a sense, when you are older, the 30-year-old Sharapova really doesn’t need to have a full-time coach. What you really need is to think hard, all the time, focus, whack it, change it up, be super consistent — just breathe. I can be wrong, but one thing I do know is: It’s all in your own head, and no one else can change it. It is all about you, especially on court.

Nadal played great at Monte Carlo, but will he stay healthy?

These days, you never know how Rafa Nadal will play on court because over the past nine months, he was hurt all the time. Even in the first three months, in 2018, he could barely play. 

However, in Monte Carlo, he looked pretty healthy. But at 100 percent? It was hard to tell until he walked on the court, he was ready to play for hours, he ran fast, he crushed the ball, so heavily, and he was so confident. He must have been so happy that he was playing in the clay again. 

In Monte Carlo, he won five matches to win the title, and he did not lose a set. He won 10 sets (60 games), and he only lost 21 games. That is damn good. He blew out Dominic Thiem, he pushed Grigor Dimitrov into the ground, and out muscled Kei Nisihikori 6-3, 6-2 in the final. Nadal: the best clay courter, ever.

But will he stay healthy over the next two months? He has to, because if he gets hurt again, the 31-year-old will have to go back to the drawing board. I would think that he has to be very careful this season. In 2017, on clay, he dominated, but after he won Roland Garros for the 10th time, he went down pretty quickly. His knees where shot. He cannot beat himself again as he beats up everyone else in the spring, clay-court season. 

Nadal is playing in Barcelona this week, which he has won many times. It should be tough, though, as he could face Nishikori again, in the third round, and possibly, in the quarters. He could play against the 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic or against Feliciano Lopez. They are all long-time veterans, but regardless, Nadal has always known how to be patient. Plus, now, he can move forward and attack.

Djokovic has been really struggling, even though he showed some resurgence in Monte Carlo, but he will be super consistent again. It will take a few more months, though. He won’t go away.  

Here is a good comparison, according by the ATP, of Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic:

Grand Slam titles/losses:
RF 20/72 
ND 12/52
RN 16/51

In the ATP 1000s: 
RF 27 titles
ND 30 titles 
RN 31 titles

The ATP Finals:
RF 6 titles 
ND 5 titles
RN 0 titles

Total “Big 3” titles:
RF 53
ND 47
RN 47

By the end of the year in late November for the ATP Finals at the 02 Arena on indoor hard courts, Nadal’s knees are pretty shot. Maybe in seven months, Nadal will be 100 percent, healthy wise. He hopes.