Italian Open 2021: Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic will resume their 2021 seasons at the Italian Open as incredibly strong fields assemble for this week’s men’s and women’s events in Rome.
Williams, who has not played a match since her Australian Open semifinal loss to Naomi Osaka, is the No.8 seed and is chasing a fifth title in the Italian capital.
Defending champion Djokovic, a five-time winner in Rome, returns to the court after skipping last week’s Masters event in Madrid.
The world No.1, who has played just four tournaments in 2021, headlines a men’s draw featuring 15 of the world’s top 16.
The women’s event now boasts eight of the world’s top 10 following the recent withdrawal of seventh-ranked Bianca Andreescu.
Main-draw action kicked off on Sunday, with Felix Auger-Aliassime and David Goffin among the first-round winners.
Italian Open 2021: Cracking women’s quarterfinals loom
Williams could get a re-match with Osaka in the quarterfinals, should the two superstars progress that far.
Unlike the 23-time major champion, Osaka has historically struggled on clay, having never before appeared in a tour-level final on the surface.
Her best result in Rome came in 2019 when she reached the quarterfinals; she opens against either Jessica Pegula or Daria Kasatkina in the second round, with a potential third-round clash against Jennifer Brady looming in what would be an AO2021 final re-match.
Italian Open 2021 DRAW: Rome women’s singles
Williams begins against either Nadia Podoroska or Laura Siegemund, with world No.11 Belinda Bencic the first seed she is projected to meet in the last 16.
Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka are on course for a quarterfinal clash in what would be a repeat of their recent Stuttgart and Madrid finals.
The game’s two form players on clay split those meetings and are now locked at 4-4 in their head-to-head series.
Barty, who after a first-round bye will face either Martina Trevisan or Yaroslava Shvedova, owns a tour-leading 25 match wins and would hit 30 with a fourth title of the season in Rome.
Following Andreescu’s withdrawal, ninth seed Karolina Pliskova moved into her slot in the draw, setting up a projected quarterfinal meeting with Simona Halep.
It would be a repeat of last year’s Rome final, a match won by Halep; Pliskova won the 2019 title.
Despite their enduring success in the Eternal City, they must navigate tough paths to arrive at that potential meeting, with Pliskova facing the possibility of a last-16 battle with fellow Czech Petra Kvitova, and Halep potentially playing Angelique Kerber in round two.
While top-five stars Sofia Kenin and Elina Svitolina are seeded to meet in another quarterfinal, the two other seeds in that quarter, Iga Swiatek and Garbine Muguruza, seem more likely to progress.
Italian Open 2021 Djokovic, Nadal to rebound?
Djokovic’s potential path through the draw looks anything but smooth, with the Serb facing a potential second-round meeting with Dan Evans – the man who stunned him in Monte Carlo.
Beyond that lies a projected quarterfinal meeting with in-form fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who went on to win the Monte Carlo title before finishing runner-up in Barcelona.
Yet Tsitspas has a tough opener of his own; he will take on either Marin Cilic or Alexander Bublik after a first-round bye.
Italian Open 2021 DRAW: Rome Masters men’s singles
Second seed Rafael Nadal has won just one of the three clay-court events he has entered in 2021, and could meet Alexander Zverev – who ousted him from Madrid – in the Rome quarters.
Nadal, who plays either Jannik Sinner or Hubert Humbert in round two, is a nine-time champion in Rome and beat Zverev in three compelling sets in the 2018 final.
Should he keep winning through, Nadal’s semifinal opponent comes from a wide-open third quarter bookended by Daniil Medvedev, who struggles on clay, and Diego Schwartzman, who has lost three of his past five matches.
Djokovic, meanwhile, could meet No.4 seed Dominic Thiem in the semifinals – the Austrian made an impressive return to action last week in Madrid with a run to the semifinals.
First-round matches to watch
Garbine Muguruza v Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
It is Muguruza’s long-term good form (she’s 21-6 in 2021) pitted against the recent form of Pavlyuchenkova, a semifinalist in Madrid last week. Muguruza leads the head-to-head 6-1, but hasn’t played since Charleston due to a left thigh injury.
Fabio Fognini v Kei Nishikori
A match-up between veterans who have both been ranked in the top 10, Fognini will benefit from the vocal support of his home crowd against Nishikori, a solid clay-courter who lost to the eventual champion in both Barcelona and Madrid.
Karolina Muchova v Madison Keys
Keys has struggled to gain momentum in 2021, winning just two matches. Yet she is a former Rome finalist and has the weapons to succeed against anyone. She’ll need them against Muchova, who beat Osaka en route to the Madrid quarters and who was a semifinalist at AO 2021.
Marin Cilic v Alexander Bublik
Cilic reached the semifinals in his last clay-court outing in Estoril and will need to carry that form into his match with Bublik, a Madrid quarterfinalist who has won 19 matches in 2021.
Johanna Konta v Jelena Ostapenko
Two big-hitting players who have enjoyed success on clay, 16th seed Konta – a Rome finalist and French Open semifinalist in 2019 – tackles 2017 Roland Garros champion Ostapenko.
Hubert Hurkacz v Lorenzo Musetti
Miami champion Hurkacz comes up against Italian wildcard Musetti, who broke out at this tournament last year with wins against Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka. Hurkacz has played just three matches on clay this year and is not as comfortable on the surface as his young opponent, who has already notched eight.