When the draw came out this weekend for the ATP Masters event in Rome, several matches leaped out right away from the opening round as promising good battles. Roger Federer faced Nicholas Almagro, a Spaniard with a pretty huge forehand and a good record on clay. Ivan Ljubicic got to see another huge guy in his opener, Jose Acasuso of Argentina. Marat Safin faced a younger version of himself in Amer Delic, formerly of Bosnia, now a U.S. citizen. Tommy Haas faced off against the crafty Radek Stepanek. Marcos Baghdatis got Carlos Moya. Richard Gasquet drew Fernando Verdasco and James Blake faced off against Frenchman Gael Monfils.

It never occurred to anyone, certainly not to me, that Andy Murray would be the one who ended up in a barrel of trouble against Gilles Simon, or that Lleyton Hewitt would go out against Oscar Hernandez. Their matches looked relatively easy. But unfortunately the one bad day of weather – the opening day – saw sun, then clouds, then rain and delays affect play. After dropping the first set, Murray grabbed the second 6-1 and had the momentum then the rain delay came. He could not keep it going and Simon ran away with the third set, 6-3. Goodbye, Mr. Murray. He arrived in the Top Ten just recently only to lose his first match here. A poor omen, no? So far the only changes he seems to be showing in his game are that he’s incorporating more black into his wardrobe. Brad Gilbert would hope he incorporates a little more. It has not been an auspicious start to his year.

Hewitt should have handled Hernandez even though Oscar has been showing up in the later rounds lately and we are starting to remember his name. It was fun to see Hernandez play for the first time. He’s got a quaint roly-poly windup on his forehand and his backhand, but he hits through the ball well and kept Hewitt pinned behind the baseline. The rain delay compromised Hewitt too. He never found his rhythm. The upshot of these upsets is that Tommy Robredo, the top seed in this portion of the draw, has a better road ahead of him. Now he only has to worry about Guillermo Canas, who blistered his way through another qualifying round and found himself in Robredo’s section. They could meet in the Round of 16.

Ljubicic had a few decent results last year on clay but Acasuso is more comfortable on this surface. Ivan had an off day serving and was not nearly aggressive enough against the big-hitting Argentinian. Acasuso kept his nerve and his serve and closed Ljubicic out in two sets. Thank you, Comcast, for cutting away to your monthly testing of the emergency response system right when Acasuso had two match points on Ljubicic’s serve. I don’t know which one he closed on, but he had two chances. Sigh. At least I am safe in my bed!

Haas against Stepanek promised an interesting battle of experienced hands at the all-court play but Haas’ problems continue. After a good start early in the year, Tommy is now taking two steps backward. Injuries are creeping in and today he retired with a shoulder problem after dropping the first set. Carlos Moya is another veteran on the clay but today Baghdatis kept his mental house in order and offed the Mallorcan in two brisk sets.

James Blake against Gael Monfils should have gladdened our hearts – had they met a year ago when both were doing better. Now they look as shaky as lambs off to slaughter. Lucky for James he ran into a guy today who is even more of a Head Case than he is right now. Monfils has lost six times in a row in the first round of the tournaments he has played. Blake closed it out relatively easily in two sets.

One of the more entertaining matches featured Safin against Delic. Both are big guys with smooth deep strokes and powerful serves. Today it was a battle to see which forehand would head south first. Delic impressively captured the first set then saw his forehand nearly break down completely in the second. In the third he lost the break early to Safin but showed some fortitude in preventing any more hemorrhaging of games. Safin kept it together when he needed to and squeaked out the victory, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. Next up for Safin is countryman Davydenko and considering how erratic both have played this year, I would not want to call this match. I hope it’s Safin but don’t bet anything because we never know which Safin will show up.

Richard Gasquet continues to improve this spring on the clay. His match against another big clay court hitter, Fernando Verdasco, could have slipped away from him in the second set tiebreak and spilled over into a third set. Such as what happened in their marathon meeting a few weeks ago in Monte Carlo when Gasquet was stretched to three sets. He seems more aggressive now in recognizing when he needs to close things out, pack his bags up and head back to the hotel. The man who sits next to him in the draw, Tomas Berdych, had an easy time of it too, quietly moving through Jarkko Nieminen in straight sets. Gasquet will most likely meet Federer in the Round of 16 then Federer would have Berdych in the quarterfinals. While they don’t have winning records against the world’s number one – after all, who does except you know who – both youngsters have the games to bother Federer. I look forward to those encounters here.

As for Federer’s play today against big hitter Nicholas Almagro, we can say only one thing: Where were you hiding it, Roger? We should have seen this play in Monte Carlo. He served well, got the first serve in, and had an even better percentage (74% vs. 70%) on winning points off his second serve. The forehand showed a lot of confidence: he ran around it several times to attack Almagro’s big weapon, his forehand. But what impressed me most was that Roger seemed engagé, as the French like to say. He seemed energized and ready to rumble. A few more forays into net and he’ll be just about perfect.

OK, I stick my neck out for no man, but for you, Roger, I’ll say: Play like this on Sunday and you might actually beat that bum-picking, bottle-sorting, line-sweeping, time-eater Nadal.

My picks:
Quarters: Federer-Berdych, Roddick-Blake, Canas-Safin, Djokovic-Nadal.

(I totally agree with my co-writer Nina Rota about the bottom half of Federer’s side. It’s a total mess. Now that David Ferrer was outed today in straight sets by Igor Andreev, I am actually looking at the chances of the Yanks Roddick and Blake. This isn’t patriotism talking, it’s just that Gonzalez is so fragile right now).

Semis: Federer-Roddick, Canas-Nadal
Final: Roger Roger Over And Out

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