All the Brits debuted in Rome on Monday, contesting a three-setter each. Cameron Norrie kept his good form going, while Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans lost after good efforts and a few wasted leads.
C. Norrie (UK, 45) d. J. Millman (Aus, 57) 3-6 6-3 6-4
Cameron Norrie brilliantly started his Italian week by defeating the Australian John Millman in three sets after two hours and eight minutes.
The two players share similar characteristics (apart from Norrie being left-handed), as they are both very good athletes who like to follow the modern counter-punching style, dictating with their forehand whenever they can. However, Norrie’s stroke has a lot more depth and spin to it, and is therefore a lot more suited to the clay game.
That ultimately proved to be the key to the game, along with the Brit’s return, which often put the Aussie on the defensive side of the rally.
Since none of them is exactly a great server, the match saw nine breaks, two of which occurred in the opening game of the match, as well as several long rallies. Early on, Norrie struggled to take the initiative: many forehand unforced errors marred his performance, along with the usual lack of power on the backhand side, as he usually doesn’t swing to hit it, but rather relies on placement and on his opponent’s pace to hurt. Millman was very well-centred, and was quick to get back into the rallies by hitting hard to Norrie’s body or by changing the direction with a strike down the line, switching from defence to offence in a blink a catching his opponent off guard. In the sixth game, he hit an excellent tight-angled forehand, and elicited two forehand mistakes to take the lead at 4-2. Norrie saved a set point on his own serve with a good slice serve (southpaws tend to fare better on break points, since their best serve is on the ad court, where the majority of such points takes place), and took a 0-30 head start in the ninth game, but Millman’s vectorial variations with the forehand, and hit two rare aces to earn a set point, finishing with a combination of shots down the line followed by an average stop volley, which still did the deed, since Norrie was far from the net and couldn’t get there in time.
The second set started exactly like its predecessor, with a break and a counter-break, but then started to find higher trajectories with his forehand, disrupting Millman’s flat backhand and hitting several winners. Moreover, his serve finally clicked, while his opponent found himself scoring an appalling 13% of points on his second serve, and the Aussie’s flat attacks to the body were worn out by the slowness of the clay, allowing the New Zealand-raised Brit to hit with more time to spare. In the third game, Norrie dictated with assertiveness, moving his opponent and provoking a forehand mistake to get to 15-40, which he capitalised on when Millman tried to target his backhand, but with no success. However, Millman took advantage of a game with few first serves in, and took the chance to level things right away.
However, Norrie had by then seized control of most rallies, and exploited the high bounces to induce further errors, and broke in the eighth game following two botched forehands. Predictably, Millman had two more break points when Norrie went to serve for the set, but Norrie saved them with an ace out wide and a successful rally. The first set point vanished after a double fault, but two more unreturned serves forced a decider.
There, Norrie kept serving with great assurance, and broke to love in the fifth game following a Millman double fault. He then proceeded to hold comfortably till the end, coming through at the first opportunity by eliciting a final forehand error into the net. His next opponent will be a difficult one, Croat Borna Coric, but Norrie could hurt him with the same weapons he employed today, since Coric shares some of the same features of today’s vanquished foe.
F. Verdasco (Spa, 38) d. K. Edmund (UK, 27) 4-6 6-4 6-2
Another match between a right-handed and a lefty with similar styles involved Kyle Edmund, who lost to veteran Fernando Verdasco in two hours and 23 minutes, after showing glimpses of his best tennis for most of the afternoon, before succumbing to his opponent’s experience and to his own current negative mindset, losing the fifth match in a row.
Both players have an extremely powerful forehand, and like to run around the ball to dictate the play, often going for winners, and the first set put their offensive attitude on display. None of the two could touch the other’s serve (Edmund, in particular, put 81% of his first serves into play, and won points on it at the same rate), until the tenth game, when Verdasco, who has never been very good in under pressure situation, ultimately having an underwhelming career, became complacent, and was lured into passive rallies, unaware that Edmund would take the initiative first, earning his first break point, which was also a set point. Verdasco correctly targeted Edmund’s backhand, but misdirected his net approach, and was passed by an excellent shot down the line, as Edmund found himself in the driving seat after 49 minutes.
The second set appeared to go even more smoothly: Verdasco argued with the umpire in the fourth game, after having misjudged a deep forehand to concede a 15-30 lead, and lost his focus (and his serve) with a double fault, gifting Edmund a 3-1 lead. However, a twist was lurking in the shadow, with the Brit showing the classic symptoms of a player lacking self-confidence: as soon as the first serve abandoned him, sinking to 40%, his body language immediately turned sour (which it shouldn’t have, given the score), and his opponent suddenly found sharpness on the return, taking a 0-40 lead. Edmund saved the first two break points with poise, but then, catastrophe stroke, as Verdasco’s backhand was deflected by the tape, landing into the other court by a few inches, and taking him right back into the game.
From there on, it was total blackout: Verdasco, who can recognise a man who’s looking into the void, suddenly became taller, while Edmund shrank, and the Spaniard went on a 23-1 run, finding himself up 2-0, 0-30 on Edmund’s serve. An excruciatingly long game ensued, with ten deuces, but in the end, Nando broke again, and sailed to victory, despite losing one of his breaks while serving for the match at 5-0, finishing with one of his best points of the day, a cross-court backhand winner off the bounce. He will now face fifth seed Dominic Thiem, while Edmund will have to try to focus on the positives of a match where he didn’t play badly, and might consider playing another tournament before the French Open to get his groove back.
C. Ruud (Nor, 76, Q) d. D. Evans (UK, 83, Q) 7-5 0-6 6-3
Dan Evans was highly entertaining as usual, but ultimately fell prey to clay-specialist Casper Ruud on a turf that he’s never liked.
The Englishman, keeping up with his comeback, initially created a lot of problems to the young Norwegian (who reached a final on clay last month in Houston), using his excellent slice to make him hit well below waist-level, causing several mistakes dictated by the lack of sensitivity of an extreme grip. After a very long fifth game, with several break points wasted, Evans managed to tear down Ruud’s defence with a powerful inside-out forehand, and then found himself on the verge of a second break on a 4-2, 0-40 lead on his opponent’s serve, but Ruud saved himself by exploiting Evans’s backward court positioning, which was ultimately his downfall, as it let his opponent dictate while he depleted his own energy tank.
Evans then couldn’t capitalise on a 0-30 lead in the ninth game, a 30-15 one while serving for the set, and a 30-0 in the twelfth game, losing the set after a double and a great Ruud backhand passing shot down the line on a serve&volley off a second serve.
Evans, aware of his superior skill, reacted brutally to this upset, and quickly won the second set with a bagel, saving a break point while serving for the set, and eliciting the final error with an inside-out forehand off the bounce. He seemed poised to squeeze away in the decider as well, but, after breaking for a 3-2 lead behind an amazing reverse volley and a forehand unforced error, he didn’t win a single game, as Ruud’s passing shots became more and more precise. He gave in with a double fault in the eighth game, falling to a kick serve to the body after two hours and a half, but can be satisfied for qualifying anyway, and will certainly be set for a very good grass performance. Ruud will now face Danil Medvedev or Nick Kyrgios.
In other matches, crowd favourite Fabio Fognini beat returning Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, while fellow Frenchman Gaël Monfils fell against specialist Albert Ramos, and Borna Coric won the most interesting match of the day against Felix Auger-Aliassime:
B. Coric (Cro, 15, seeded 13th) d. F. Auger-Aliassime (Can, 30) 6-7 (4) 6-3 6-4
K. Khachanov (Rus, 13, seeded 11th) d. L. Sonego (Ita, 67, WC) 6-3 6-7 (1) 6-3
A. Ramos-Viñolas (Spa, 88, Q) d. G. Monfils (Fra, 16, seeded 15th) 6-3 6-1
M. Cecchinato (Ita, 19, seeded 16th) d. A. De Minaur (Aus, 26) 4-6 6-3 6-1
L. Djere (Srb, 32) d. M. Kukushkin (Kaz, 47) 6-3 6-4
F. Fognini (Ita, 11, seeded tenth) d. J.-W. Tsonga (Fra, 92, PR) 6-3 6-4
D. Shapovalov (Can, 22) d. P. Carreño Busta (Spa, 43) 6-3 7-6 (5)