ROME, Italy -- The French Open is just two weeks away and the top players will play their final tune-up this week at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome, a.k.a The Italian Open, held at the beautiful grounds at the Foro Italico.
In recent years, the 56-player joint tournament has been a good indicator of French Open success. In the last six years, the women's finalists have gone on to make the semifinals or better at Roland Garros, with two going on to win the title. That's what happened last year when Maria Sharapova beat Li Na to win her second straight Rome title and was lifting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in Paris three weeks later. The numbers are less compelling for the men because, well, Rafael Nadal has won the French Open seven of the last eight years. He's won Rome a record six years and made the finals seven times. Obviously he'll be the favorite again.
• French Open seeding in play: Defending champion Rafael Nadal still has a chance to take the No. 4 seed away from David Ferrer in Rome. He needs Ferrer to lose before the semifinals and if the draw plays out as it should, Nadal has a chance to make sure that happens. For the second straight week he's been drawn into Ferrer's section and the two are projected to face off in the quarterfinals. If Nadal wins that match and goes on to win Rome, he'll take back the No. 4 ranking, go into the French Open as the No. 4 seed, and everyone can breathe a sigh of relief.
• Nadal and Djokovic in the same half: Want to place some odds? How about this fact: Since 2005 only two men have won Rome: Nadal (six times) and Novak Djokovic (twice). The two have faced off in the final three of the last four years but that's not going to happen this year because Nadal, now ranked No. 5, was drawn into Djokovic's half of the draw. The two could meet in the semifinals of a tournament for the first time since the Paris Indoors in 2009, breaking a streak of 12 straight finals.
• Big Four need to rebound: Djokovic flew straight to Rome after losing to Grigor Dimitrov in the third round of Madrid and has been hard at work. It shouldn't be too difficult to put that loss behind him considering how different the conditions in Madrid are to those in Paris, plus the Italian crowd absolutely adores him (there will be no whistling and booing of the Djoker this week). Also looking to dust themselves off from disappointing losses are Roger Federer, who lost to Kei Nishikori in Madrid, and Andy Murray, who was bounced in straight sets by Tomas Berdych. Rome is one of the few ATP Masters 1000 titles that has eluded him, having made the final only twice in 2006 (l. to Nadal) and 2003 (l. Felix Mantilla). He looked very rusty in his return from a six week layoff last week and could play a solid Tommy Haas in the third round.
• The return of Juan Martin del Potro: As for Murray, he's still trying to find his clay legs. He's got Juan Martin del Potro in his quarter. Del Potro has been struggling with both his wrist and health, winning just one match since making the final in Indian Wells and skipping Madrid last week. One good tournament and he's back in the mix at the French Open as a spoiler.
• A Madrid redux is unlikely: Madrid gave us a slew of notable and feel-good upsets with Dimitrov and Nishikori leading the way. But Madrid is home of the one-off upsets that rarely give us any indication of what might happen at the French Open. Three of the top four seeds have made the Rome semis the last two years running.
• American men are one and done: The lone American men in the draw, Sam Querrey and John Isner, have already lost. Querrey lost to Richard Gasquet 6-2, 7-6 and Denis Istomin came back from a set down to beat Isner 5-7, 7-6, 6-3. Talk about early exits.
Prediction: Nadal d. Del Potro.
Notable early round matches
First round: Grigor Dimitrov vs. Marcos Baghdatis, Milos Raonic vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber, Fabio Fognini vs. Andreas Seppi, Juan Monaco vs. Benoit Paire.
Potential second round: Tomas Berdych vs. John Isner, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Jerzy Janowicz, Andy Murray vs. Nikolay Davydenko, Grigor Dimitrov vs. Richard Gasquet, Tommy Haas vs. Gilles Simon.
Potential third round: Roger Federer vs. Tommy Haas, Novak Djokovic vs. Stanislas Wawrinka, David Ferrer vs. Milos Raonic, Juan Martin del Potro vs. Nicolas Almagro, Andy Murray vs. Kei Nishikori, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Richard Gasquet.
Serena vs. Venus Williams showdown: Venus pulled out of Madrid with a back injury, which means she has yet to play a red clay match this season. She's drawn Laura Robson in the first round and the winner will face Serena in the second round. That would be the sisters' second clash in the last month, with Serena beating her big sister in the Charleston semifinals.
Robson has to be wondering what she did to deserve possible back-to-back matches against the iconic sisters but from where I sit it's a good position for her. She has a clear history of getting up for these big matches and she'll be playing with zero pressure. When the Brit won Wimbledon at just 14 in 2008, she joked that she was ready for Venus, who also won Wimbledon that year. "I'll take her down," she told the BBC. With Venus possibly hampered with a back issue, this could be an opportunity for Robson to add yet another Slam winner to her growing stack of scalps.
Statement time for Victoria Azarenka: Azarenka was wise to take six weeks off after Indian Wells to heal an ankle injury and prepare for the clay season but her return in Madrid was a disaster. She was upset by Ekaterina Makarova in the third round, lost her temper, and took a dig at chair umpire Mariana Alves on the way to her first loss of the year. Clay may be Azarenka's worst surface but that's not saying much. She's made back-to-back clay finals in Stuttgart and Madrid (losing to Sharapova and Serena, respectively) before withdrawing from Rome. She can play on this stuff and she's a threat at Roland Garros if she can get her game together. She should get a good test against Madrid semifinalist Ana Ivanovic in the third round and Sharapova in the semifinals.
Li Na looks to bounce back: A finalist here last year, Li looked to have her clay game intact in Stuttgart where she lost in the final to Sharapova. Then she lost in straight sets to Madison Keys in the first round of Madrid. That loss should be just a blip. She could face Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska, both of whom aren't comfortable at all on clay, on the way to the semifinals where she'll likely meet Serena.
Sloane Stephens under the spotlight again: In the midst of an extended slump and mired in controversy after her comments about Serena in ESPN the Magazine last week, I suspect Stephens would like nothing more than to just stay out of the limelight for a while. Unfortunately for her, she's drawn two of the most popular Italian players in Rome, drawing Flavia Pennetta in the first round and a possible second round match against Francesca Schiavone. That means her matches will be on the show courts with plenty of loud Italians on hand to support their countrywomen. It also means the Italian press corps might be interested, too.
Prediction: Serena d. Sharapova.
Notable early round matches
First round: Venus Williams vs. Laura Robson, Sloane Stephens vs. Flavia Pennetta.
Potential second round: Serena Williams vs. Venus Williams/Laura Robson, Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Caroline Wozniacki vs. Jelena Jankovic, Petra Kvitova vs. Sabine Lisicki, Ana Ivanovic vs. Sorana Cirstea, Sloane Stephens vs. Francesca Schiavone.