Former world number one Rafael Nadal is playing the tennis of his life right now. The Spaniard endured a torrid 2015 and 2016 campaigns due to wrist injuries and a lack of form. Nevertheless, in 2017, Nadal is dominating the clay court season. The 14-time Grand Slam champion has claimed back-to-back-to-back titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid, and he is currently unbeaten on clay, boasting a 15-match winning streak. Nadal looks to continue his preparation for the French Open at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, where he has won the title, a record seven times. The fourth seed begins his quest for a first title at the Foro Italico since 2013 against compatriot Nicolas Almagro.
Almagro's clay court form ahead of Rome
The world number 73's priorities have changed now as the Spaniard is a father. However, Almagro still enjoys playing professional tennis and is still a dangerous player. The former world number nine has played in some Challenger events in 2017 to keep his ranking afloat but he had to qualify in Rome. The Spaniard defeated Andreas Seppi in the opening round at the Foro Italico. The three-time French Open quarterfinalist's results coming into the Eternal City haven't been great. He lost to Radu Albot in the first round in Marrakech, however, he defeated Martin Klizan in the first round in Monte Carlo but was comprehensively beaten by David Goffin in the second round. Once again, he suffered another clay court defeat in Barcelona losing to Alexander Zverev in a tough three-set second round match in Barcelona. The Spaniard surrendered his title in the quarterfinals in Estoril to compatriot Pablo Carreno Busta. His best match of the season so far was last week in the second round of the Mutua Madrid Open against world number two Novak Djokovic. He led 3-0 in the final set but was unable to sustain his good level of play, losing to the Serb, 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.
Nadal's clay court results leading up to Rome
The former world number one lost to Roger Federer in the finals of the Australian Open and Miami Open. He also suffered a defeat in the final of Acapulco to Sam Querrey. However, the Spaniard's fortunes turned around, when he returned to the European clay courts. The Spaniard dropped one set in his opening round match against Kyle Edmund but he eased past Alexander Zverev, Diego Schwartzman, David Goffin and Albert Ramos Vinolas to win his 70th career title and 50th on his favorite surface in Monte Carlo. Nadal was flawless in Barcelona as he didn't drop a set against Rogerio Dutra Silva, Kevin Anderson, Hyeon Chung, Horacio Zeballos and Dominic Thiem to win his tenth title in the Spanish city. The 14-time Grand Slam champion entered the Mutua Madrid Open with a ten-match winning streak and he didn't win the title in the Spanish capital since 2014. Nadal had a tough three-set match with Fabio Fognini in his opening round match but he recorded victories over Nick Kyrgios, Goffin, Novak Djokovic for the first time since the French Open final in 2014 and Thiem in the final again to claim his third title of the season and in the process, a record-equalling 30th Masters 1000 title, tying with Djokovic.
Breakdown of their rivalry
The two Spaniards have met on 15 occasions, and it is no surprise that the former world number one has a commanding 14-1 head-to-head over his compatriot. 12 of their meetings have come on clay courts with Nadal defeating Almagro in the quarterfinals of the French Open on three occasions in 2008, 2010 and 2012, and in the second round at Roland Garros in 2015. Nadal also defeated his compatriot in the third round of the US Open in 2009 in straight sets. However, Almagro's solitary victory over Nadal came in the quarterfinals of Barcelona in 2014 in three sets.
Who reaches the next round?
The fourth seed has risen to world number four in the world once more with his title run in Madrid. The nine-time French Open champion has an outside chance of finishing in the top three and overtaking Stan Wawrinka in the rankings in Rome. Nevertheless, Nadal may be feeling the effects of his title triumphs in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid but he will be motivated to win another Masters 1000 title on clay. Almagro will be a tough test for the seven-time champion, however, Nadal will have the mental edge over his elder compatriot. Nadal knows that he will have to serve well against Almagro, and try to avoid his forehand, which is a deadly weapon when it is firing on all cylinders. Nadal's returns on his favorite surface have been scintillating, and his movement on clay has been very good in his last three events.
This will be the second match scheduled on Court Centrale, following the conclusion of the second round match between Kei Nishikori and David Ferrer. The winner of this second round clash will have a third round meeting with 13th seed Jack Sock or Jiri Vesely.
Prediction: Nadal in straight sets