World number 34 Juan Martin del Potro is working his way back up the rankings, and the 2009 US Open champion is looking to get a seeding at the French Open. The Argentine will be competing in his second clay court event in 2017 after reaching the second round in Estoril but withdrew from the Portuguese clay court event. The 28-year-old withdrew from the event in Estoril due to his grandfather's passing and he returned to Argentina. Nevertheless, the Tower of Tandil is returning to the Internazionali BNL d'Italia at the Foro Italico in Rome for the first time since 2013. Clay is del Potro's weakest surface but he reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2009, and he was a quarterfinalist in Paris, three years later. del Potro's left wrist began to bother him in 2014, which ruled him out for virtually two years, and the former US Open champion is looking to get back to his best once more. Nonetheless, the world number 34 will be looking to get some clay court matches under his belt ahead of the French Open, and he begins his campaign against 10th seed Grigor Dimitrov.
Dimitrov lost an agonising three-set match at the Mutua Madrid Open last week to Dominic Thiem. The Bulgarian was unable to convert on one of the five match points that he had created. However, this is a different week for Dimitrov who has started 2017 very brightly. The 10th seed has two titles to his name this year starting with Brisbane, where he defeated three top ten players back-to-back in Thiem, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. His great form continued at the Australian Open, where he advanced to his second career Grand Slam semifinal after Wimbledon in 2014. He lost to Rafael Nadal in a five-set thriller, and he continued his good run of form in his hometown event of Sofia, defeating David Goffin in the final.
However, after his title win in Sofia back in February, the former world number eight started to struggle. He lost to Goffin in the quarterfinals in Rotterdam and to Jack Sock in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Dimitrov went on four-match losing streak suffering first round losses to Guido Pella in Miami and in his first two clay court events in Morocco and Monte Carlo to Tommy Robredo and Jan-Lennard Struff respectively. Clay is by far Dimitrov's weakest surface as the third round of the French Open in 2013 was the furthest he has gone but he has suffered three first-round exits in his last three appearances in the French capital. Dimitrov advanced to the semifinals in Rome in 2014 but he was no match for Rafael Nadal.
del Potro has played a handful of matches in a tough 2017 campaign as the Argentine opted to skip the Australian Open. He won his second Olympic medal in Rio last year, as he gained a bronze in London five years ago, and he lost to defending gold medallist Andy Murray in the final. Nevertheless, he lost to Raonic in the semifinals in Delray Beach and to Novak Djokovic in a three-set thriller in Acapulco. The former world number four lost to Djokovic once more in three sets and to Roger Federer in the third rounds of Indian Wells and Miami respectively. Tough draws are the reason, why del Potro hasn't rapidly moved up the rankings.
del Potro and Dimitrov have met on four occasions, and the 2009 US Open champion has won all four encounters with the Bulgarian. The Argentine's first victory over the 10th seed was in the semifinals in Rotterdam in straight sets, a three-set victory in the third round in Paris at the BNP Paribas Masters both in 2013. The duo met on two occasions in 2016 with del Potro winning both in the first round in Stuttgart, 6-4, 6-2 and in the semifinals in Stockholm, 6-4, 7-5.
Who reaches the next round?
The 2009 US Open champion will come into this match as the slight underdog due to the lack of matches he has played this year overall and the lack of matches he has played on clay. However, del Potro will have to serve well against Dimitrov, and his backhand will need to fire on all cylinders. Moreover, the Olympic silver medalist's forehand has been ferocious in the past few months and it could cause Dimitrov some problems. This is a good chance for the 2014 semifinalist to gain his first victory over del Potro on clay courts. Dimitrov has been playing sublime tennis in 2017, and he also has played a lack of matches on the red dirt. He will need to return the Argentine's serve back into play, and try to get the Argentine on his backhand side, which is weaker than his forehand. Dimitrov's serving has been good this year, however, the last month has seen mental fragilities from Dimitrov who has struggled to close out matches.
This first round encounter on the clay courts at the Foro Italico will be the fourth match scheduled on Centre Court at not before 7:30 pm local time and the winner of this match will play Joao Sousa or Kyle Edmund in the second round. This match could go either way but with Dimitrov playing a few more matches on clay this season than del Potro, he should advance to the next round in Rome.
Prediction: Dimitrov in straight sets.