Ah, Rome! The annual Masters event is usually seen as a glamorous week of dolce vita – but that was hardly the experience of the crowd on NextGen Arena, as Kyle Edmund slugged his way to a scratchy victory in damp and chilly conditions.
Spectators could be seen jogging on the spot to keep warm as Edmund struggled to subdue the challenge of Malek Jaziri, the world No 64 from Tunisia. The quality of play was spotty at best, as witnessed by a combined total of exactly 100 unforced errors by the two players. But Edmund won ugly, scraping his way into the second round by a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 margin.
For Edmund’s progress into the world’s elite to continue, he needs to be able to deal with the tennis equivalent of a wet Wednesday at Stoke. We saw him take out an all-time great last week, in the shape of Novak Djokovic.
But that was of zero benefit on Monday night, particularly while he was spraying the ball in all directions during a messy second set. The NextGen Arena is the poor relation of Rome’s courts, flung out in the far corner of the otherwise lovely Foro Italico site, and at that stage the tennis was matching its surroundings.
Edmund’s inaccuracy could partly be explained by a dramatic change in conditions. He played his quarter-final in Madrid on Friday night, falling just short against the 19-year-old wunderkind Denis Shapovalov. But that was at an altitude of just over 2,000 feet, which meant that the ball sped through the court with a little extra zip.
These Roman courts can also be lively when the weather is hot, but clay is a moody surface that responds in all manner of unpredictable ways. On Monday, the red dirt slowed everything down, damping Edmund’s trademark forehand and allowing Jaziri – who is relatively underpowered at this level – to scramble his way close to an upset win. The impressive part of the evening was the way Edmund lifted his level in the final half-hour. Having won only 31 per cent of deciding sets in 2017, he is up into the mid-50s this season.
“I had to work hard for the match,” said Edmund afterwards. “It’s just different coming from Madrid, it’s one extreme to the other in the conditions. The ball flies there, whereas it’s tough to get cheap points here, because it’s so heavy. In the second set I was giving him too many second serves. I knew I had to step up a bit and turn the momentum my way again.”
At least Edmund can now settle down and acclimatise for his second-round match against either Andreas Seppi – the Italian who beat him in Monte Carlo last month – or 16th seed Lucas Pouille. This is an important week, because a good run could carry him into the top 16 seeds for the French Open.
Earlier, Johanna Konta, the other British No 1, had won her opening match against Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia. Neither of these women is particularly comfortable on clay but Rybarikova, who reached the Wimbledon semi-finals last year, was the more obvious fish out of water as she went down to a 6-4, 6-4 defeat.
“It was a bit of a battle,” said Konta afterwards, “but I expected that. We played last week in the first round as well and it was the same scenario. I had a lot of break chances in the first three of her service games [which went begging] and coming through that can be quite tough, but I stayed tough, believing that I was playing the right way.”
Meanwhile, Serena Williams’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou, told the Women’s Tennis Association website that his charge will play at the French Open in just under a fortnight’s time. “She is working extremely hard,” said Mouratoglou. “She is improving in all the areas fast. I am very satisfied and confident that she will be ready for Roland Garros.”