The Foro Italico, home of the Rome Masters, looks very different this year. The main stadium is being rebuilt and temporary seating has been erected around what was the second court, concealing most of the huge statues that were central to Benito Mussolini's vision of the park.
Rafael Nadal's rivals have been relieved to see that the new look has spread to the tournament draw. The world No 2, winner for the last three years, went out on Wednesday, which means that this will be the first clay-court Grand Slam or Masters Series event that Nadal has started and not reached the final of since Hamburg in 2003.
Roger Federer will be hoping to take advantage, the Swiss having lost to his great rival in seven of their eight meetings on clay. Federer has looked in good form in his two matches here and moved into the quarter-finals yesterday with a victory over Ivo Karlovic that was more comfortable than the 7-6, 6-3 scoreline might suggest.
Karlovic's huge serve is a threat on any surface, but although Federer failed to break the Croatian in the first set he rarely looked in trouble. The world No 1 took the tie-break 7-4, creating set point with a superb return of serve and converting it with a crushing backhand. The second set was more routine, Federer breaking serve in the fifth and ninth games.
"You just have the feeling the draw has opened up tremendously," Federer said afterwards. "It's an opportunity for everyone, because you would favour Rafa against all of those guys in that section of the draw. It's tough for Rafa. I feel for him. He was on such a great streak for the last three years, but I'm sure he'll bounce back either at Hamburg or Paris."
Asked whether he had any sympathy with Nadal's complaints about the 2008 schedule, Federer replied: "It's tough for everyone. I'm playing four clay-court tournaments as well. It's just that I placed them differently. I understand why he wanted to play Barcelona and defend his title there. It's a tough year because of the Olympic Games."
It will be a surprise if the eventual winner does not come from the top half of the draw. In today's quarter-finals Federer meets Radek Stepanek, the winner to play Novak Djokovic or Nicolas Almagro. Djokovic, the world No 3, was detained for more than two and a half hours yesterday by another clay-court specialist, Russia's Igor Andreev, before winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.Reuse content