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After enjoying one of the smoothest imaginable draws in Monte Carlo, Nadal now must tackle one of the most difficult paths imaginable in order to capture his fifth Rome title, which would tie him with Agassi for the Masters 1000 record. Just to reach the final, he likely will be forced to overcome Soderling and Federer, the two players who defeated him on his favorite surface last year. Should he secure this tournament, however, the victory would resonate throughout the tennis world even more powerfully than did the Monte Carlo triumph, which carried a slight asterisk considering the number of marquee absences. There will be no asterisk this week. Can the Mallorcan bull trample the most skilled matadors in the ATP? Quarter-by-quarter preview straight ahead!

First quarter: We’d almost forgotten about Federer, who has played just five total matches since the Australian Open while recovering from a lung infection. He’ll need to set his clay-court wheels in motion immediately against either Gulbis or his recent conquerer Baghdatis, but his ease on the grit should see him through to the quarters rather comfortably. On the other side, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the flamboyant Almagro inflict some damage on two Croats who would prefer to play on any other surface, perhaps even the moon. A third-round clash between Cilic and Ljubicic would intriguingly sketch the past and the present of Croatian tennis. (Or is it the present and the future, judging from their recent results?) We wouldn’t be surprised to see Almagro spoil their rendezvous, though; his clay expertise could take him all the way to the quarters…but no further.

Semifinalist: Federer

Second quarter: How odd is it to see Nadal’s name embedded unobtrusively in the center of a draw rather than looming over the top or anchoring the bottom? Rafa will want to conserve energy in his first two rounds, perhaps against Kohlschreiber and Andreev, before the thunderbolts start descending from a familiar Swedish mountaintop. It’s not a certainty that Soderling will reach the quarters, since either Berdych or Wawrinka will strive to intercept him. Yet the Swede has a distinct edge in the ball-bruising contest that would unfold against either the Czech or the Swiss, and last week in Barcelona he showed no lingering complications from a knee injury . Over the last year, Soderling’s game has become increasingly bullet-proof, but will it be bull-proof again? Look for the extra-slow surface to aid Nadal more than his memories hamper him.

Semifinalist: Nadal

Third quarter: We’re quite confident that the champion won’t emerge from this nondescript neighborhood. Neither Tsonga nor Murray can be expected to reach their projected collision on Friday, considering their shared discomfort on clay. If Murray doesn’t suffer a fourth consecutive loss in his opener, Ferrer probably will halt his winning streak at one in the third round. Meanwhile, the age-defying Ferrero should repeat his upset of Tsonga from Monte Carlo, considering that the surface generally plays even more slowly here. That fact will aid Ferrer’s counterpunching game in an all-Spanish quarterfinal that should offer a clay-court clinic par excellence. Only one of the eight Ferrer-Ferrero duels has concluded in straight sets, so expect a gritty, grueling war of attrition built upon marathon rallies and superb court coverage. And expect the diminutive David to ultimately grunt and grit his way past a stylish but not overwhelmingly powerful opponent.

Semifinalist: Ferrer

Fourth quarter: Riding the momentum of his Barcelona title, Verdasco has little to fear from his first two opponents, since he’s far more comfortable on this surface than potential foes such as Hewitt or Youzhny. On the other side, Djokovic should comfortably dispatch the still-unreliable Chardy en route to a scintillating third-round encounter with Isner, who threatened him much more than one would have expected during the Davis Cup tie in Belgrade. If the Serb’s serve wobbles as much as it has in recent weeks, this match could produce some nervous moments for his fans, but the American doesn’t seem quite ready to topple a top seed. Consequently, we expect the two bookends of this quarter to reprise their semifinal meeting in Monte Carlo, captured resoundingly by the Spaniard. He’lls have won 12 of his last 13 matches at that stage (with the one loss against Nadal), so he’ll have the confidence edge in this battle of fragile psyches.

Semifinalist: Verdasco

Semifinals: Nadal d. Federer, Verdasco d. Ferrer. Rafa has much more to prove at this stage than does Roger, who has vanquished him on dirt only at Hamburg and Madrid–the least sluggish of all clay courts. Although Ferrer can trouble Verdasco in his less consistent patches, the stronger Spaniard has been connecting with his best shots at timely moments lately.

Final: Nadal d. Verdasco. When there’s an 10-0 head-to-head between two players, you have to stick with the winner until the loser proves you wrong.

***

We’ll be back tomorrow with a preview of the WTA Stuttgart draw, which features stunning first rounds such as Azarenka-Pennetta, Bartoli-Stosur, Wickmayer-Schiavone, and Radwanska-Ivanovic.

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