Nadal off his game in Rome
They were burying Seve Ballesteros when Rafael Nadal walked on court to play the Italian qualifier Paolo Lorenzi here at the ATP Masters Series at the Foro Italico. It was going to be a sad day anyway for the man who will now assume the role of Spain's greatest living sports icon but, from a purely tennis point of view, it nearly turned into a very bad one, too.
The eventual score of 6-7, 6-4, 6-0 to Nadal does not begin to tell the story of how off color Rafa looked as he tried to deal with his emotions over Seve; his emotions at having what he considered to be below-par matches in the semifinal and final at Madrid and the technical requirements of making the altitude switch and adjusting to a different type of clay court in Rome.
Novak Djokovic, triumphant at the moment, had no such problems as he embarrassed the Polish qualifier Lukas Kubot 6-0,6-3
But it is always tougher for the loser, and Nadal didn't try to dodge the issue. When asked if he would like to analyze the match his immediate response, delivered with a huge smile, was "No!"
Then he went on, "I played bad. I felt slow. I was hitting the ball short. He did well with some serve and volley and moved well, but I was terrible and a little bit anxious when he broke back from 3-1 in the second set."
Nadal was asked if he felt anxious about Djokovic who has beaten the world No. 1 — a position that is now under threat — in three successive finals. "No, I am not anxious about Novak," he replied. "I was a little bit nervous because I played bad in Madrid but not about Novak. He is doing very well and good luck to him. That is life. You have to accept if one player is playing better than you."
To put things in perspective, this was the worst Nadal had played on clay since anyone could remember. With his forehand finding the net or flying out of court, he made 21 unforced errors in the first set alone and 35 in the whole match. As he said, his movement was poor — especially in contrast to his 29-year-old opponent who has spent an entire career scrabbling around in Challenger tournaments and never improving on a ranking higher than 83.
Lorenzi showed he could produce a varied clay-court game, choosing good moments to serve and volley and create pressure at the net. Suddenly, he seems to have discovered how to compete at this level because he beat Ivan Ljubicic in Miami in March and, in the first round here, he had taken out the Madrid semifinalist Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil in straight sets.
Afterwards, Lorenzi talked about how he had approached the match. "I was trying not to believe that on the other part of the court there was Nadal — I was trying to think there was another player there. I was not thinking about Nadal because it would have been too much emotion."
All round, it was a pretty emotional sort of day but, so far at least, there has been no sign of the earthquake that some sage predicted would hit Rome on this date. So many people believed it that 18 percent of Romans failed to show up for work. It looked as if many of them were at the tennis match.
They were certainly packing the marble tiers and gangways of the double court lay out at the back of the complex that sits almost in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium where Roma and Lazio play soccer.
While women's matches were taking place on Court One, two Americans tasted defeat and victory on Court Two. Sam Querrey fought hard against Nicolas Almagro, engaging the Spaniard in long baseline rallies, some of which he won with his whippy cross-court forehand. But even though he broke back for 4-4 in the second Almagro was too solid in the tie break and took it 7-4 to win 6-3, 7-6.
Mardy Fish, however, reached the third round in Rome for the first time in five attempts when he scored a fine victory over that talented Ljubicic 7-6, 5-7, 6-2.
"The second set was frustrating because I got a break up early but couldn"t hold it," Fish said. "Obviously with his height he serves well and doesn't give you much to play with. But I made sure I got more first serves in during the third set, and that made a big difference. I feel pretty comfortable on this stuff and the movement is OK for me. Even on hard courts I slide to my backhand side so it's not too much of a problem."
Later, under the lights, Roger Federer, who lost in the second round here last year to Ernests Gulbis, seemed less concerned about the switch from Madrid than Nadal, and completed a smooth and largely untroubled 6-4, 6-2 victory over the big Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.