- Chris Wilkinson
Golden summer beckons for FedererChris Wilkinson May 15, 2012
As the preparations for the French Open step up a notch, we are back on the traditional red clay in Rome this week.
Novak Djokovic may be the top seed and defending champion and Rafael Nadal the King of Clay, but Roger Federer is the man to beat after his win in Madrid last week.
There was so much controversy surrounding the blue clay in the Spanish capital, but Federer just seemed to glide across the court. That just shows his class - that he can adapt to any surface so easily. From the minute he stepped on court he looked comfortable. It is such a shame that the controversy surrounding the event took away from Federer's win.
Nadal has been outspoken in his criticism of the change and he was noticeably more cautious and clearly felt he was risking injury with every shot he made, and Djokovic is threatening to skip the event next year if changes are not made. And to be honest I can understand their frustration.
Personally I think the decision to change the surface so close to the French Open is ludicrous, but more critical is the decision to ignore the player's protests. If they were consulted about the changes then their concerns were clearly ignored.
The justification for the change in colour was to help spectators see the ball more easily, but even they seemed opposed to the change - they were booing tournament chief Ion Tiriac during the presentation ceremony on Sunday.
Federer's win sees him leapfrog Nadal to move back up to No. 2 in the world, and with Djokovic having so many points to defend, the world No. 1 spot is firmly back in his sights.
It could be a big summer for Federer. By the time he reaches his 31st birthday, he could have ended his wait for his 17th grand slam, broken Pete Sampras' record of at the top of the world rankings and could have finally got his hands on an elusive Olympic gold singles medal.
I do think at this stage in his career he will be thinking about his legacy. There aren't many more records he can break, but Sampras' is one that has narrowly eluded him for so long - he is just one week short of equalling the American's record of 286 weeks as world No. 1.
That said, I do think his top priority will be London 2012. He has never won a gold in the singles competition (he won doubles gold with Stanislas Wawrinka in 2008) and I'm sure he will have his eye on making his career Grand Slam a golden one.
And the fact that this summer's Olympic competition is at the All England Club, where as a six-time champion he has so many happy memories, would just make the win all the more special.
He may have one eye on the grass-court season, but Federer would be crazy to get too far ahead of himself - after all he has a strong chance of winning major No. 17 at the French Open. The last time Federer won the Madrid Open, he went on to win at Roland Garros and complete his career Grand Slam.
Events in Madrid last week make the Rome Masters even more critical for the top players. Djokovic and Nadal will be looking to get back to winning ways and it will be key for Andy Murray, who missed the Madrid Open with a back niggle.
We don't know how serious his injury was, but my feeling is that the uncertainty of the blue clay was probably playing on Murray's mind and so with his French Open preparations to consider he decided to pull out and concentrate on being fully fit for Rome.
I did think Milos Raonic would be one to keep an eye out for in Rome after his stunning run to the semi-finals in Barcelona, but he was beaten by Florian Mayer in the first round. The usual suspects will be challenging for the title - Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and of course Juan Martin Del Potro is back in the top 10 after his win in Estoril a fortnight ago.
This year's French Open is set to be an intriguing one - Djokovic is going for the career grand slam Nadal a record seventh Roland Garros title; Federer could return to world No. 1 with victory in Paris, while Murray could be a challenger under the influence of Ivan Lendl.
This week in Rome will be a great gauge of what we can expect in Paris later this month.
Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1