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Sinner and Alcaraz out. Djokovic and Nadal in. In Rome, men’s tennis is upside down

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Ahh, Rome. The majesty of the Colosseum. The golden light of the sun as it sets west of the Tiber. The tranquility of the Spanish steps.

And one big mess of a tennis tournament at the Foro Italico, one of the most picturesque venues in the game.

A little over a month ago, men’s tennis looked to be settling from chaos into a clear narrative. Novak Djokovic still holding the No 1 ranking but with everyone in agreement that Jannik Sinner is the player to beat in 2024, with Carlos Alcaraz ready to grab the game back at any moment and Daniil Medvedev showing he is closer to those three than the tens behind him. 

Then things went haywire. An injury bug at the top of the sport, rejuvenated contenders from the Big Three’s former pickings and the reappearance of a legend have created a wide-open environment in a men’s game that has had decidedly little of that for a long while. 

The sticky part is that Rome does not produce a lot of dark-horse champions, or even finalists. It’s on traditional clay, at sea level, making it a near facsimile of the French Open courts at Roland Garros. That means nearly everyone plays every year — barring injuries — and since 2005, someone not named Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic has won just three times, and one of those names is Andy Murray. The other two? Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev.

It’s probably the highest-quality Grand Slam tuneup in the sport.


Medvedev overcame Holger Rune in last year’s final (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

That said, there are a lot of walking wounded in the top 20 right now, with Andrey Rublev on his last nerve to win Madrid, Holger Rune troughing as much as peaking. Even some possible dark horses, like up-and-coming Czechs Jiri Lehecka, Tomas Machac and Jakub Mensik, or home hope Lorenzo Musetti, are banged up or coming off dispiriting losses.

If insistent on a runner or rider, does Grigor Dimitrov count? He made the Miami final and lost tight matches in Monte Carlo and Madrid. He’s No 10 on the ATP rankings and the No 8 seed in the Italian capital.

In a city known for its past, history says Novak Djokovic will just swoop in and win most of everything, but the present hasn’t done much good for Djokovic lately, who has yet to win a title.

So let’s set that aside and try to make some sense of the landscape at the Italian Open.

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Which top men’s tennis players are out? 

Jannik Sinner, world No 2

Struggling with a right hip injury, the Italian made the quarter-finals of Madrid then called it. Sinner has withdrawn from Rome to try to get healthy ahead of the French Open, where he needs to be able to move with his trademark fluidity to have his best chance. It wasn’t there in Madrid.

Carlos Alcaraz, world No 3

Alcaraz has withdrawn, too. The Spaniard has few weaknesses in his game, though his serve isn’t at the level of the rest of his arsenal. One niggle during his short career is an apparent susceptibility to small injuries.

He also made the quarter-finals of Madrid but was holding back on his forehand because of an injury to his forearm. He was hitting that usually lethal shot three miles per hour slower than he had been during the previous year, about a four per cent drop. That might not sound like a lot, but when you are his opponent standing roughly 80 feet away, four per cent translates into the extra split seconds that change watching a ball whizz past to being able to unload on it.

He’s resting for the next three weeks and will try to have that arm ready to pack its usual punch in Paris.


Which top men’s tennis players are in? 

Novak Djokovic, world No 1


Djokovic has not had the easiest start to the year (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Djokovic has turned over nearly his entire team since the U.S. Open. He has played just a single clay-court tournament, in Monte Carlo, where he did better than usual and lost to Casper Ruud in three sets in the semi-final.

He skipped Madrid to keep some gas in his tank since he desperately wants to win the Olympic gold medal at Roland Garros this summer, the one big prize that has eluded him. When he takes the court this week, nearly four weeks will have passed since his last competitive match.

Rome isn’t the focus. The French Open and the Olympics are. Then again, he’s won it six times in the era of Rafael Nadal on clay.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

No title for Sinner or Djokovic in Monte Carlo, but maybe something just as valuable

Rafael Nadal, world No… 305

Speaking of the King of Clay, he will be in Rome, but in what version and what’s the goal?

Pressing to win an 11th Italian title? More measured experimentation with his ageing body, which can seem one bad step away from the end? A valediction at the tournament that turned him into Rafael Nadal? All of the above?

go-deeper

Here was Nadal after losing in the fourth round in Madrid. 

“I dreamed to play all these tournaments that I had success one more time,” he said.

“Rome is one of these ones that I enjoyed a lot playing there. So I want to go there. I’m going to try. And I want to play well there. I want to play well. I want to be competitive.”


Nadal is not giving up (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Daniil Medvedev, world No 4

Medvedev, the defending Rome champion, pulled out of his quarter-final against Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic after one set with an injury to his upper right leg. He doesn’t like clay all that much as it is. He’s also never successfully defended a title. 

Stefanos Tsitsipas, world No 8

Tsitsipas, one of the game’s best clay-court players, set himself up for a great run on the red stuff, winning Monte Carlo and making the final in Barcelona. Then he lost his opening match in Madrid to Thiago Monteiro, a veteran qualifier from Brazil who caught him off guard, in straight sets. 

He will no doubt want to right his ship in Rome before Roland Garros. There was news in his personal life last week, though, as Paula Badosa, his girlfriend for nearly a year, announced they had parted ways.


The Greek’s Monte Carlo win was a big uptick in form (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Andrey Rublev, world No 6

He won Madrid while fighting off an illness following a month-long slump during which he lost three of four matches. Can he back it up?

Felix Auger-Aliassime, world No 20

Glass half-full: he scored one of the best wins of his career in beating Ruud, a two-time Roland Garros finalist, during his run to the final in Madrid, before Rublev beat him 4-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Glass half-empty: That run to the final included two mid-match retirements and a quarter-final walkover against Sinner. 

Casper Ruud, world No 7

Incredibly dangerous on clay. Healthy. Rested. Watch out.


Tell us your favorites — and dark horses — in the comments.

(Top photos: Clive Brunskill; Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto; Julian Finney/via Getty Images)

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