May 11, 2011

When In Rome...

The Italians are out in full force in their homeland this week, but so far it's been the visitors who've been more comfortable at the last big tournament before the French Open.

That's not to say the locals haven't been putting up a good fight -- Potito Starace pulled off a nice upset of fifteenth seeded Viktor Troicki earlier today and defending French Open champion Francesca Schiavone won her opener in decisive form Tuesday. But some others, after promising starts, ultimately succumbed to more experienced athletes making themselves at home in Rome.

Alberta Brianti, whose win in Fes seemed to give her a bit of momentum -- she followed it up with a quarterfinal run in Barcelona -- started her run in impressive form. She pulled off a straight set victory over former top-twenty play Jie Zheng in her opener, winning almost half the points on her opponent's serve. But on Wednesday she ran up against fellow veteran Greta Arn who, at thirty-two years of age, is having the most success of her career. Despite a dismal second serve percentage, the Hungarian was able to convert when needed and stopped the hometown girl's campaign in just under ninety minutes. Next up she faces a wholly beatable Elena Vesnina, so she just might be able to extend her run.

Filippo Volandri tells a similar story -- having climbed to his highest ranking in about three years on the heels of a semifinal run in Belgrade, he pulled off a one-sided victory over Thiemo de Bakker on Sunday, dropping just three games in the win. He looked good against Stanislas Wawrinka today, too, taking advantage of the fact that the fourteenth seed had already withstood a long three-setter against another Italian Fabio Fognini on Tuesday. But the Swiss steadied himself after losing the second set and though he didn't deliver a terribly noteworthy performance, he adapted long enough to capitalize on break chances, eventually earning the win and the right to mean white-hot Novak Djokovic on Thursday. I'm not sure Stan will be the one to end Nole's streak, but he's got to at least feel more comfortable after a shaky start.

Romina Oprandi was just starting to turn her year around when she got the wildcard in Rome. Having started 2011 with a 0-7 record, she finally notched a win in Estoril before making the semis at an ITF event in Prague. A surprise three-set defeat of world #19 Kaia Kanepi in her first round should have given her a bit of confidence, but she couldn't quite get her footing against Daniela Hantuchova. After keeping things close in the first set, the Slovak got a late break and powered through the second, dropping just nine points on her serve. Though Hantuchova has been on a bit of a roller coaster the last year or so, her decisive win today could give her the edge as she progresses -- she'll need whatever she can get against second-seeded Schiavone, who she'll face next.

If any Italian was going to make an unexpected run, though, I'd have put my money on Sara Errani, a semifinalist in both Marbella and Barcelona. She was handily beating compatriot Roberta Vinci in their first round Tuesday when her opponent retired, and I would have thought she'd be well rested today. But Victoria Azarenka, playing some of the best ball on the women's Tourthese days, had other ideas. She made good on a career-high ranking by forcing sixteen break chances during the match and converting six of them. Vika allowed Errani just three points on her second serve and closed out the match in just over an hour, proving she could push her disappointing loss on Sunday out of her mind. The road will certainly get harder here on out, but Azarenka's proven she's not just a hardcourt hitter and could still cause a few more surprises this week.

Perhaps the biggest shock from the Italian underdogs, though, came from qualifier Paolo Lorenzi, ranked just inside the top 150. He'd only played two Tour-level matches this year, winning just one of them, but scored a huge win over Madrid semifinalist Thomaz Bellucci in his opening round. Most probably assumed his luck would end there, but when he won the first set tiebreaker from heavy favorite Rafael Nadal earlier today, the hometown crowd went wild. But Rafa is the king of upping his game when the chips are down, and he quickly broke serve to begin the second set. After finally drawing even, he was able to take control and blanked the far less experienced Lorenzi in the third set, narrowly escaping what would have been his biggest upset on clay.

Clearly some of these guys have a better chance of continuing their runs than others, but so far they've all proven they can certainly do as the Romans do -- and sometimes, they do even better.

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