Djokovic, Swiatek on the defence in Rome

Top seeds look to fend off strong challenges from No.2 rivals

Novak Djokovic, Rome 2022© Ray Giubilo/FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

The clay season takes us to Rome this fortnight as players continue to build towards Roland-Garros.

World No.1s Novak Djokovic and Iga Swiatek headline the fields at the Foro Italico, where they are both defending champions.

Here’s a look at some of the main talking points at the Italian Open this year.

Djokovic returns

The Serbian top seed will be making his first on-court appearance in three weeks, having been out dealing with an elbow issue that contributed to his quarter-final exit in Banja Luka last month.

Suiting up for Rome for the 17th consecutive time, Djokovic has never lost before the quarter-finals at the Masters 1000 event and is a six-time champion there.

The 35-year-old is 17-3 for the season, with two titles under his belt captured in Adelaide and at the Australian Open.

He is 2-2 on clay so far in 2023 and will be looking to pick up some momentum at the Foro Italico before shifting his focus to Paris’ terre battue.

Djokovic, who attended the UEFA Champions League semi-final clash between AC Milan and Inter Milan at the San Siro on Wednesday night, had an opening round bye in Rome and will begin his campaign against Argentina’s world No.61 Tomas Etcheverry.  

Red-hot Alcaraz to reclaim No.1 spot

While Djokovic was out nursing his elbow injury, Carlos Alcaraz successfully defended his titles in Barcelona and Madrid, before flying to Paris, where he received the Laureus Breakthrough of the Year Award and got to meet Lionel Messi.

It feels like Alcaraz is on top of the world right now and after Rome, he will return to the top spot in the world rankings, replacing Djokovic, by simply taking to the court for his first match.

Fans have been waiting to see those two battle it out since their first meeting took place a year ago in Madrid, where Alcaraz defeated Djokovic en route to the title.

Rome will be the first tournament of the year where both Alcaraz and Djokovic are in the same draw and a potential final between the top two seeds is already the talk of the town in the Italian capital.

Alcaraz is on an 11-match winning streak and has lost just twice this season (is 19-1 on clay). He has won four of the six tournaments he has contested in 2023 and perhaps only the might Djokovic can halt his momentum.

Fun fact: The 20-year-old Alcaraz will be making his Rome debut. It’s his first appearance at a tournament in Italy since he won the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan 2021.

A third straight Swiatek-Sabalenka final in the cards?

Swiatek beat world No.2 Aryna Sabalenka in the Stuttgart final before the result was reversed in the Madrid final two weeks later.

Given their strong run of form, will the world’s top two square off in the championship decider in Rome?

Swiatek is the two-time defending champion and the 21-year-old Pole crushed Sabalenka in the Rome semi-finals last year on her way to the title.

That was a very different Sabalenka, however, to the one we are seeing right now, who is a Grand Slam champion, and the tour-leader in match-wins and titles captured in 2023.

“What she (Iga) did last season and what she keeps doing, it really motivates me a lot to improve, to keep working hard,” Sabalenka told reporters in Madrid last Saturday following her hard-fought three-set final win over the two-time Roland-Garros champion.

“I would say that this year matches are completely different matches than it was last year. I improved a lot and I really want to win against her because she’s such a great player.”

Swiatek will face former Roland-Garros runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her Rome opener and is taking nothing for granted, despite her strong record in the tournament.

“For sure I have good memories from here, but I'm not expecting this tournament to be easier than any other because it's tough. Yeah, we'll see how I'm going to play,” said Swiatek.

“There's always some room for improvement, but we'll see. Sometimes just being consistent is enough. Sometimes you need to play really 100 percent and perfect matches. We'll see. It also depends how my opponents play.”

Meanwhile, Sabalenka begins her Rome quest on Thursday against fellow Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin.

Jabeur is back

This time last year, Tunisian Ons Jabeur had just made history in Madrid by becoming the first woman from her country, Africa, and the Arab world to win a WTA 1000 title.

She kept things going by reaching the final in Rome before suffering a shock opening round exit at Roland-Garros.

The former world No.2 had a good start to her clay season this year, lifting the trophy on Charleston’s green clay before making the semi-finals on indoor red clay in Stuttgart. Jabeur sustained a small tear in her calf early in her last-four showdown with Swiatek in Stuttgart and was forced to miss out on a chance to defend her title in Madrid.

After spending nearly three weeks on the sidelines, the crafty Jabeur will play her first match against a fellow former No.2 Paula Badosa in her Rome opener on Friday.

“I think clay really suits my game. It's not that fast. I have time to doing all my shots. Usually I like to take my time to build the point. I think it's a great court to play my game,” Jabeur told reporters in Rome.

“Definitely I love sliding. I love doing the trick shots. The dropshots is usually great here on this kind of surface because it stays low. Yeah, I hope this year will be better than last year, especially at Roland-Garros, and we continue playing my game and having a great game.”

Iga Swiatek & Ons Jabeur / Finale Rome 2023©Ray Giubilo / FFT