World number one Andy Murray has struggled for form in 2017 since his ascension to the world number one ranking. The Brit has not reached a quarterfinal at a Grand Slam or Masters 1000 event which is bizarre, considering how good his performances were in 2016. The defending Internazionali BNL d'Italia champion's woes have been slightly eased with world number two Novak Djokovic's surprising struggles in 2017 as well. The Serb has relinquished his Australian Open, BNP Paribas Open, Miami Open and Mutua Madrid Open trophies. However, Murray could potentially lose the world number one ranking in the second half of the season to either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, who have been the two in-form players in 2017.
However, the three-time Grand Slam champion will be looking for some form heading into the French Open, where he reached the final last year. The reigning Wimbledon champion has reached two finals this year, losing to Djokovic in a three-set thriller in Doha but he won the title in Dubai. The Brit lost to Vasek Pospisil in straight sets at the Californian Desert, where he has historically struggled in the past. He lost in the third round of the Monte Carlo Masters to eventual finalist Albert Ramos Vinolas in three sets, despite leading 4-0 in the final set. Dominic Thiem got the better of him in his third semifinal of the year in Barcelona, and he suffered a shocking three-set loss to Borna Coric in Madrid.
Murray will have to put all of those disappointments behind him as it is a different week, and he takes on the dangerous Fabio Fognini in Rome. The Italian is currently ranked at 29 in the world, and he will be looking to guarantee a seeding for the French Open. Australian Open champion Roger Federer's withdrawal from Roland Garros slightly helps his cause if he falls out of the top 32. Fognini is going to be a father for the first time this year, as his wife and the now-retired 2015 US Open women's champion Flavia Pennetta is currently pregnant. The flamboyant Italian reached his second Masters 1000 semifinal at the Miami Open in March, where he defeated Kei Nishikori comprehensively in the quarterfinals.
The Italian has played quite a few matches on the clay courts in 2017 as it is his favourite surface. Fognini lost to Pablo Carreno Busta in the first round in Monte Carlo, and in the second round in Munich to Guido Pella. However, the Italian arguably played one of his best matches of the year in the second round of the Mutua Madrid Open against the in-form Rafael Nadal. He was the only player to take a set off Nadal all week at the Caja Magica but he fell short in three sets. Fognini booked his second round encounter with the defending champion by defeating compatriot Matteo Berrettini, 6-1, 6-3 in the opening round on Sunday.
Breakdown of their rivalry
Murray and Fognini have competed against each other on five occasions, and the top seed only has a 3-2 head-to-head lead against the Italian. Fognini thrashed Murray in their first encounter in Montreal, 6-2, 6-2 back in 2007. However, the Brit gained his revenge in their third round meeting in Monte Carlo, 7-6 (11), 6-4 in 2009. Once again, the world number 29 would gain the lead in his rivalry with Murray, putting on a good display against Murray in the Davis Cup meeting between Italy and Great Britain in Italy, three years ago. Fognini outclassed Murray, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. They met for a fourth time on the hard courts in Valencia later that year, which Murray won 6-2, 6-4, and for the first time, the top seed took the lead in their rivalry defeating Fognini on the hard courts in Rio at the Olympics last August. Murray needed three sets to defeat Fognini, 6-1, 2-6, 6-3.
Who advances to the next round?
The world number one has struggled to dig deep and win matches that he would have won in 2016. The top seed turned 30 today, and he is still in good physical condition. Murray sarcastically smiled at his coaching box last week in his match with Borna Coric. The Brit has improved immensely on clay, and he will look to serve well, after recovering from his elbow injury. The three-time Grand Slam champion's movement is world class on clay, and he will be looking to embark on a deep run in Rome. Fognini isn't afraid to show his emotions on the court like Murray, and he tends to lose his cool easily when things are not going his way on the court.
His serve is relatively weak, and Murray will look to take advantage of that with his exceptional returning. The former world number 13 is nine days younger than Murray and he likes to dictate play on the baseline, and despite not being one of the tallest players on tour, he packs a punch with a dangerous forehand. Fognini likes to throw in drop shots but against the defending champion is may not have an effect is the Brit is very fast and will be able to read it if it is not disguised enough.
This is the final match scheduled on Center Court at not before 9 pm local time, following the women's match between 16th seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and three-time women's champion Maria Sharapova. The match being played at night should draw a full crowd, and since Fognini has struggled at playing at the Foro Italico in the past, Murray should come through this match but it shall not be easy. The winner of this second round match will have a tricky third round clash with 16th seed Alexander Zverev, Kevin Anderson or Viktor Troicki.
Prediction: Murray in three sets