Tennis

Roger Federer back in Rome, with eye on French Open

Swiss says he's pumped up to do well on venue where he last played in 2016

Roger Federer insisted his focus at this week's Italian Open was on getting more match practice on clay ahead of the French Open from May 26-June 9.

The 20-time Grand Slam winner has not played on the red clay in the Foro Italico since his third-round exit in 2016, having finished runner-up the previous year for the fourth time, losing to Novak Djokovic in the final.

"Regardless of what happens here, I just think it's good for me to play matches at this stage," said world No. 3 Federer before his first match today.

He has a first-round bye as the No. 3 seed and will begin his tournament against Portugal's Joao Sousa.

The 37-year-old's performance in the Madrid Open last week has boosted his hopes of winning the French Open, a decade after his only title there.

He fell in the quarter-finals on Friday to Dominic Thiem, but twice held match-point and for a set and a half was dominant against a player considered among the favourites for Roland Garros after Rafael Nadal and Djokovic.

"I was playing well in Madrid, so I just said, again, 'Let's come to Rome, a city I like so much as well'. Madrid is a tough place to play. I felt like playing somewhat maybe more sea-level conditions would be good for me.

"There would be excitement, more excitement than me coming to a practice court in Switzerland.

"This week, then next week in Paris, it's going to be interesting to see how I play the points, how I do it all."

His arrival in the Italian capital has been a boost for organisers, who doubled ticket prices after it was announced he would be playing.

"That's obviously disappointing to hear," said Federer.

"They made it in a way like they rewarded the fans who bought tickets earlier, which is sort of strange.

"Look, I just really hope it doesn't take away the fact I'm really happy to be here.

"I'm pumped up to play well. I mean, my excitement couldn't be bigger."

Federer is in the same half of the draw as eight-time Rome winner Rafael Nadal, who is looking for his first clay title this season before his French Open title defence.

A potential quarter-final awaits against either Stefanos Tsitsipas, the eighth seed, who beat Nadal in the Madrid semi-finals, or Italian 10th seed Fabio Fognini, the Monte Carlo winner.

BAD DAY FOR CHINESE STARS

Meanwhile, former French Open winner Garbine Muguruza warmed up for Roland Garros by easing into the second round yesterday morning (Singapore time) with a straight-set win over China's Zheng Saisai.

Muguruza - a former world No. 1 now ranked 19th - came through 6-3, 6-4 for her third win over 46th-ranked Zheng this season.

It was not a good day for Chinese players, with two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka crushing Zhang Shuai 6-2, 6-1. Azarenka next meets two-time defending Rome champion Elina Svitolina.

Chinese 15th seed Wang Qiang also fell to Czech Katerina Siniakova 1-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Former world No. 4 Dominika Cibulkova beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-2, 6-3 and next meets US Open and Australian Open winner Naomi Osaka of Japan. - AFP

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