The world's top tennis players will battle it out in the Internazionali BNL d’Italia at Rome's Foro Italico from 7-20 May 2018.
By Ed White
Italy moves to the forecourt of world tennis from 7-20 May as the elite players join rank in Rome for the annual Internazionali BNL d’Italia on the clay courts of the Foro Italico. An exciting week of matches takes place from 14-20 May, following a week of qualifying rounds, as the glamour of the sport shines into the Eternal City.
The tournament is one that widely embodies Italian culture, with high fashion and fine food served up alongside the sporting entertainment. As well as the action on the court, spectators can take in celebrity musical performances and tuck in to the delights of Rome’s best cuisine.
In tennis terms, the tournament is the third Masters event held on clay and the final competition before the second Grand Slam of the year, the French Open at Roland Garros in June. That means the standard is red hot, with players aiming to surge towards Paris at the top of their game.
Some of tennis’ greatest players have put their names on the Italian Open trophy in the past. The tournament was first held in Milan in 1930 with American Bill Tilden and Spain’s Lili de Alvarez claiming the men’s and women’s singles prizes.
Milan only played host to five tournaments, however, as the competition moved south to Rome in 1935, when American Wilmer Hines took the men’s title, beating the defending champion Giovanni Palmieri of Italy in the final 6-3, 10-8, 9-7.
The tournament then faced a 15-year exile from the world stage before returning five years after world war two in 1950, with Egyptian Jaroslav Drobny winning three of the next four tournaments. There has not been an Italian men’s singles champion in Rome since Adriano Panatta beat Argentinian Guillermo Vilas in four sets 42 years ago, in 1976.
Only two other Italian men have scooped the title, Fausto Gardini (1955) and Nicola Pietrangeli (1957 and 1961). Similarly, only two women have taken the honours on home soil in Rome – Annelies Illstein Bossi in 1950 and Raffaella Reggi in 1985 – creating a 23-year wait for an Italian champion. Sara Errani came close to ending the barren run in 2014 when she reached the final, only to lose in straight sets against Serena Williams 6-3 6-0.
American great Chris Evert is the most successful female player in the tournament’s history with five wins between 1974 and 1982. Before she pulled out at the last minute - on 9 May - Williams was tied alongside Spain’s Conchita Martinez, who claimed four successive titles between 1993 and 1996, and Argentina’s Garbriela Sabatini.
Rafael Nadal has engraved his name in Italian Open history by lifting the trophy at Foro Italico seven times in nine years between 2005 and 2013. Behind him, Novak Djokovic has put his name on the trophy four times, while losing in the final on four further occasions.
From the past, Austria’s Thomas Muster enjoyed back-to-back wins in 1995 and 1996 while Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier and Marty Mulligan were also multiple champions.
The prize remains one that is missing from Roger Federer’s grand trophy cabinet. The Swiss champion has reached the final on three occasions but has failed to beat the imperious Nadal twice and an electric Djokovic on the third occasion. Federer’s first final against Nadal in Rome was arguably one of the greatest finals in the competition’s history, with the Spaniard eventually claiming victory in a five-set thriller courtesy of a final-set tie-break.
Last year, bright spark Alexander Zverev claimed his first Masters title in Rome having shocked second seed Djokovic in straight sets in the final.
Zverev is among a group of emerging talents who seek to take advantage of the injury woes of the game’s long-admired ‘Big Four’: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Federer, now a 20-time Grand Slam winner, and Britain’s Murray will both miss this year’s competition. Indeed, the Scot will miss the entire clay court season as he recovers from hip surgery. Murray was the Rome champion in 2016.
If fit, Nadal, who has dominated on the clay since his emergence as a teenager, will start the week as a favourite to lift the title for an eighth time. However the Spaniard was hit by injury over the first few months of the calendar; prior to the latest round of Davis Cup matches in early April, he had not been seen on court since being forced to retire from his quarter-finals match at the Australian Open in January.
Djokovic, likewise, has sustained a crisis in his game, allowing the first three Masters events to be won by non-European players for the first time in seven years. Americans Jack Sock and John Isner have claimed titles on the hard courts against Argentinian hitter Juan Martin Del Potro.
Of the emerging pack, Australian Open semi-finalist Kyle Edmund, Swiss clay-court specialist Dominic Thiem and Croatia’s Borna Coric will be ones to watch eyeing a maiden Masters title.
Of course local interest will be high too, with Fabio Fognini, Andreas Seppi and Simone Bolelli drawing the Italian crowd. Fognini, 30, won the Brasil Open earlier this year and plays a dangerous game on the red surface that will make him one to watch in the draw.
The women’s draw will also see Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci attempting to thrill the stands at Foro Italico. Errani heads into her home competition in prime form having taken the title in Indian Wells, a major annual US tournament, in March.
Most focus this year would have been on the fortunes of Serena Williams, however the 23-time Grand Slam champion withdrew from the tournament in a last-minute move that will disappoint many tennis fans. Williams missed the majority of the 2017 season due to the birth of her daughter Alexis, but she has recently returned to the tour with a protected ranking – a safeguard for players who have been injured or taken time off to have a baby. Great rival Maria Sharapova from Russia will be aiming to match her haul with her first title win in Rome since 2015.
Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina will return as the defending champion having shocked former World No. 1 Simona Halep, from Romania, in the 2017 women’s singles final. The women’s field is likely to be an open and keenly contested competition, allowing for great matches throughout the sessions.
The draw for the men’s and women’s singles event will take place at the Arco di Costantino on 12 May at 18.30 with 56 players in each. The top 16 seeds receive a bye into the second round.
Alongside the singles draws, the world’s best over the extended court will battle it out in the men’s and women’s doubles competitions.
Legendary player Martina Hingis has won the last two women’s doubles titles alongside partners Sania Mirza (2016) and Chan Yung-jan (2017), beating Russian pair Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in both finals.
Italian duo Errani and Vinci won the event in 2012 and reached the final the following two years. French pair Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut are the defending champions in the men’s doubles.
Ticket packages range between ground pass entry watching the outer courts to the luxury settings inside Campo Centro for the pick of the matches. The open air Campo Centro has capacity for 10,400 spectators, with sun hats and screen a must in the normally hot conditions.
Corporate hospitality offers reserved access to the Club Lounge at Foro Italico and front row seats for the best views, with packages including seating behind and on the long side of the action. Tickets and hospitality packages can be purchased from the Internazionali BNL d’Italia website, with prices rising throughout the tournament and differing between day and night sessions. Tickets on the opening Monday can be found for as little as €17.60, while the Sunday showpiece tickets start from €151.80.