Damien Kayat previews selected quarterfinal matches of the Italian Open.
2021 ATP and WTA Tour
Masters 1000 and WTA Premier 1000
Foro Italico, Rome, Italy (Outdoor Clay-Court)
Iga Swiatek (15) (15/20) vs Elina Svitolina (5) (1/1)
Iga Swiatek has flown slightly below the radar this year despite her escapades at Roland Garros last season. She also won her 2nd title in Adelaide earlier this year. The teenager became the first Polish Grand Slam Champion in history during a French Open characterized by upsets (obviously the Covid withdrawals contributed to this). But it was really the exclamation point to a series of burgeoning clay-court successes for Swiatek. She reached the final of the Ladies Lugano Open in 2019 and then went as far as the 4th round at that year’s French Open (quite notable when you consider it was only her 2nd Grand Slam). And her 3rd round victory this week over giant-killer Barbora Krejcikova was a fitting testament to her powers of determination. The Czech dominated the first set and had two match points in the 2nd. Swiatek showed why she was voted the 2020 WTA Fan Favourite Singles Player of the Year. She possesses an almost Nadal-esque ability to never surrender.
Elina Svitolina has a far more serene passage into this quarterfinal berth, defeating former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza in straight sets. It was quite a crazy match which was characterized by an inordinate number of breaks. The Ukrainian seems to have bounced back after a fairly embarrassing first-round defeat in Madrid. This year has been all about consistency for Svitolina. Semi-finals in Stuttgart and Miami point to the all-court dynamism that we know she possesses. Svitolina is a three-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist and- more crucially- she is a two-time Rome winner. Those 2017 and 2018 titles really established her as a clay-court presence (up until that stage most of her success had come on harder surfaces). Her counterpunching game is well suited to the surface here in Rome (which is slow even by clay standards).
VERDICT: Swiatek at 15/20
This will be the first career meeting between these two. Conventional wisdom suggests that Svitolina is the favourite here (though the odds wouldn’t suggest that). She is a two-time champion and she looked convincing against Muguruza. But I think there’s almost more to read into Siwatek’s battling performance. Svitolina also has a tendency to wilt at this stage of tournaments. The Polish teen has the ability to outlast the Ukrainian and it screams value here.
Andrey Rublev (7) (26/100) vs Lorenzo Sonego (26/10)
Italian tennis has been experiencing a renaissance of late. Berrettini and Fognini helped lead Italy to the final of the ATP Cup. Jannik Sinner is touted as a potential Grand Slam Champion. But not many have commented on the gradual rise of Lorenzo Sonego. The 26-year-old Italian really made a name for himself at last year’s ATP 500 event in Vienna. He beat World Number One Novak Djokovic en route to his first ATP 500 Final. Perhaps of more relevance was his 4th round run at Roland Garros. Sonego has been steadily climbing the rankings without attracting too much attention. This will be his 2nd ATP 1000 Quarterfinal following the Monte-Carlo Masters two years back. He has already won the Sardegna Open on clay this year. And he has been tremendous this week. He cruised past Gael Monfils in his opening match and stunned 4th seed, Dominic Thiem, in his last. That epic encounter told you everything you need to know about the Italian’s durability. He will also have the advantage of boisterous home support in the latter stages of this event.
It was perhaps understandable that the Rublev juggernaut would eventually show a few signs of wear and tear. He won five titles last year and made his first-ever Tour Finals. He has been just as consistent in 2021. He won a title at Rotterdam and looked ominous en route to an Aussie Open quarterfinal. He has also made semi-finals in Doha, Dubai and Miami. The switch to clay initially had no impact on the Rublev machine. He beat Rafa Nadal at Monte-Carlo in an excellent run to the final. But since then he has been underwhelming (the defeat to Isner in Madrid last week was perhaps a low point of the season). He also needed three sets to get past Struff in the first round. Rublev is theoretically a less imposing entity on clay- especially slower clay-courts such as these. Players with less firepower will be able to counter him with topspin and work-rate. But he’s an all-court player who has adapted his game to be successful on all surfaces.
VERDICT: Reblev in straight sets at 78/100
Rublev leads the head-to-head with Sonego 1-0. That win came in the final of last year’s Vienna Open. Sonego’s victory over Thiem certainly captured the headlines. But I think that journey will end here. Rublev is perhaps the player least phased by being the ‘crowd underdog’. He has a point to prove in Rome this week: he can be as dominant on clay as anywhere else. Rublev to win in straight sets at 78/100.