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Nick Kyrgios of Australia returns the ball to Daniil Medvedev of Russia at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Tuesday, May, 14, 2019. Kyrgios won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Nick Kyrgios of Australia returns the ball to Daniil Medvedev of Russia at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Tuesday, May, 14, 2019. Kyrgios won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)|Associated Press
Tennis

Tennis Thursday: In Italian Open Men’s Round of 32, Abrams picks matches with Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Fognini, Kyrgios, Tsitsipas & more

Matches start at 5 am EDT.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

Internazionali BNL d’Italia
Rome, Italy
Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Roger Federer over Joao Sousa
Every match that we get to watch Roger Federer play in now is a real treat and should be savored, as he is 37-years-old, and not long for this type of life. This match against Joao Soares, a 30-year-old Portuguese turned Spaniard, should be a nice test of the Maestro’s clay court prowess. They’ve played once—on grass in Germany five years ago, where Federer won in three. This should be more of the same. Since matches are often won by inches, a couple of points, or a strategically placed shot in an important game, understanding that The Fed may go three, but win, is really watching a genius with an SAT score of 800 outplace other students who score 790. That’s how close these guys really are.

Rafa Nadal over Jeremy Chardy
What a horrible year Rafa Nadal is having!! He’s 0 for 2 in his prized European Clay Court circuit, having lost in both Monte Carlo and Madrid, and has seemed to struggle a bit as of late. But let’s put that in proper perspective. Let’s admit that this is a down year for Rafa so far. That he has yet to win a tournament, and has already suffered five losses without that big trophy. And now lets be objective: he’s ranked No. 2 in the world, has compiled a W-L record in 2019 of 20-5, has won $2,629,219 so far, and it’s only May. With three of the four Grand Slam tournaments yet to play, and his favorite, the French Open, which he has won 11 times (!!!) just over the horizon, it gets easy to pass off what would be a truly spectacular year for almost anyone else as simply mediocre when referring to Rafa. That’s just a reflection of the kind of excellence we have come to expect from the 32-year-old from Mallorca. He’s 2-0 lifetime against Chardy, the Frenchman who lives in London, and after Rafa wins this one to run his lifetime record over Chardy to 3-0, his 2019 record will be 21-5. That’s one helluva horrible year!

Novak Djokovic over Denis Shapovalov
Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, who just turned 20 years old last month, is not yet ready to beat top-ranked Novak Djokovic. They played at this year’s Australian Open, where Djokovic ran away with the title, and Shapovalov seemed lucky to have gotten one set off of Nole. This won’t be much better here, and I can think of lots of reasons why this will be worse. Most of them center around this match being on clay in Rome. They’ll hit the court when it’s cold, damp, dark, and possibly rainy, and those conditions always favor Tour veterans who are used to playing in poor conditions and in matches that may or will be interrupted because of the elements. Nole isn’t quite old enough to be totally bothered by these conditions, but that awaits him on the other side of 35, when stopping and starting leads to stiff muscles and frayed nerves. Here, Nole will roll over his 22nd ranked opponent, and hopefully, Shapovalov will learn from this experience. But don’t feel bad for the Canadian. At age 20, he’s already earned over $3 Million. I think he can afford this lesson.

Dominic Thiem over Fernando Verdasco
Dominic Thiem, the fourth ranked player in the world, and probably the second best slow court player, is 0-3 against the 6’2” Spaniard, Verdasco. They’ve played on hard, clay and grass, but they haven’t played yet in 2019, and now that Thiem has cemented himself in the upper tier of players, I think he’s got the confidence to finally post a win over the Spaniard. He’s already got the game.

Fabio Fognini over Radu Albot
This is not going to be an easy match for the new King of Monte Carlo, Fabio Fognini. The Italian has had a resurgence of sorts that has highlighted his array of shots, his brilliance, and his flamboyance. But he is also a tough and feared competitor. Albot has made great strides in 2019, including his first career title in Delray Beach (and his first career win against Fognini, in the California desert of Indian Wells), but if Fognini brings his “A” game, this match goes to the Italian. We all know that little separates “crazy” and “genius,” so if Fognini goes off a bit, Albot could creep into this match and steal it. But we haven’t seen that side of Fognini in two months, and let’s hope, for his sake, that it stays in the closet here in Rome.

Juan Martin del Potro over David Goffin
Would it surprise you to know that these guys have played four times previously and that Goffin has won three of those matchups? It sure surprises me. But with the history of injuries that del Potro now possesses, any head-to-head matchups that began in the past couple of years might always show him in a negative light. Del Potro has been struggling with injuries for ten years it seems, almost since he took the U.S. Open title over Federer in 2009. And this latest comeback has been hard to watch as he doesn’t seem to be able to hit topspin backhands anymore. He either steers them, blocks them, or slices them, and against most people that works. But he’s playing against the best athletes in the world, and against these guys it’s been a real struggle. I’m picking del Potro out of emotion, which is a bad way to pick, since Goffin played really well in taking out Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka 6-2 in the third in the first round here in Rome. I’m guessing that del Potro has one last laugh left in his 6’ 6” body.

Kei Nishikori over Taylor Fritz
Taylor Fritz has been a bit of a revelation here in Europe, as he’s competed well and won matches on the slow red clay that I never thought he’d be able to win. But Fritz doesn’t yet possess the game to beat Nishikori, the 6th seed here. Fritz still excels on harder, faster courts, and the slow clay puts a premium on almost everything that Nishikori does particularly well – retrieving shots, being steady, staying patient, and manipulating his opponent around the court until he can unleash his unplayable double-fisted backhand down the line for winners. He’ll do that here against Fritz, even after his surprising two set loss last week to Stan Wawrinka in Madrid.

Stefanos Tsitsipas over Jannik Sinner
Sinner, the 17-year-old boy from Sesto, Italy, won a terrific first round match over American Stevie Johnson that I was surprised went his way. We all know that Johnson can’t hit a backhand, but the American parlayed his limited game and great athletic ability to claim two NCAA men’s championships and a solid, if journeyman-like 7-year career on the ATP Tour. Any time you are ranked one of the sixty best of anythings, you’re doing something right. So maybe I should stop picking on the Yank. But Sinner showed maturity, good strategy, and a little brilliance in taking out a player who has so much professional experience. I think the kid is for real. Just not yet. Tsitsipas has a complete game, and is already showing signs that he can compete against the Big Three right now, as he’s already, at age 20, made it into the Top Ten. This might be a fun match to watch to recall ten years from now, though.

Casper Ruud over Nick Kyrgios
We’ve seen neither the Nick Kyrgios that we love – the guy who can hit any shot at any time for a winner and beat every other player in the world, or the guy who is so disinterested and clearly mentally-ill that it hurts to watch him self destruct in front of our eyes in such a public display. The game that Kyrgios brought out against Russian Daniil Medvedev was the kind of game that most mortals have to deal with almost all the time. You see, Tour players play great (in the zone) about 15% of the time, play awful another 15% of the time, and the rest of the time---70%, they play sorta average for them. That’s the game that most players have to learn how to compete with. And in that 70% lies the heart of champions. Kyrgios won his first round match against Medvedev with that 70% game, which was nice to see. But just around the corner from Dr, Jeckyll lies Mr. Hyde. Depending on which one shows up for this second round match with Casper Ruud will determine who wins the match. Because it doesn’t matter how Ruud plays, as always, it’s all about Nick.