Tennis: Errani leads Italian charge for Rome glory

Djokovic, Nadal, Federer taking part in 'fifth slam'

Tennis: Errani leads Italian charge for Rome glory

(By Paul Virgo) Rome, May 10 - Sara Errani is set to lead Italy's charge for glory as tennis's top players start to gather in Rome for next week's Internazionali d'Italia tournament. The Rome event regularly attracts all the sport's top names, such as Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, and this year is no exception. It is the second most important clay-court tournament after the French Open and it is increasingly gaining the status of a sort of 'fifth' grand slam. A format change introduced in 2011 means that, instead of running in consecutive weeks, the men's ATP and women's WTA events in Rome are staged at the same time, giving the tournament the same feel as Wimbledon and the Australian, French and US Opens. "This tournament is the jewel in the crown, not just of Italian sport, but of the country as a whole," said Giovanni Malago', the president of the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), the governing body of all sport in Italy. "We are thinking of ways to make it grow even more," he said, with organizers reporting record sales and the games from the quarter-finals on already sold-out. Errani and her partner Roberta Vinci are the world's top-ranked doubles players after winning three of the last four grand slam events, and the pair go into the Internazionali d'Italia as reigning doubles champions. But the 26-year-old Errani is no slouch in the singles either. The Bologna native had a breakthrough season last year when she reached the final of the French Open. She has continued her good form this year, reaching three finals and winning the seventh singles title of her career at the WTA Tour event in Acapulco, Mexico, in April. So the world number seven, who is something of a clay specialist, will be hopeful of giving Italy a home winner in the singles for the first time since Raffaella Reggi won in 1985. Vinci, the world number 13, will be out to mount a challenge in the singles and doubles too. "It's always an incredible emotion to play in front of your home fans," said the 30-year-old who, like Errani, makes up for her lack of height with superb technique, tenacity and athleticism. "It's a wonderful tournament for us Italians, although it's full of pressure too. "Sometimes the desire to do well blocks you. But last year (in the doubles) that didn't happen and wining with Sara was beautiful". Italian fans will also be cheering on Francesca Schiavone, who became the first Italian woman to win a singles grand slam when she triumphed at the 2010 French Open and last month claimed her first tournament in almost a year in Marrakech, and Flavia Pennetta, who became the first Italian woman to enter the singles top 10 in 2009. America's world number one Serena Willians and Russia's Sharapova, who won the Rome title in 2011 and 2012, will be the favourites. The men's tournament may be more open than in previous years as four of the three big guns, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, have been affected by injury problems recently, while the other, Britain's Andy Murray, is not his best on clay. Reigning champion Nadal has won six of the last eight titles in Rome, with the other two going to Serbia's Djokovic, in 2008 and 2011. The top-ranked Italian in the men's singles is Andreas Seppi, the world number 20. While other top tournaments have also doubled up for combined events like the majors, the Internazionali has an edge in several areas. These include the sun and allure of Rome and the beauty of the Foro Italico sports complex used for the 1960 Olympics, with the tree-covered Monte Mario hill and the Stadio Olimpico acting as a backdrop. The tournament also has a superb main stage in the 10,500-seater centre court stadium that was opened in 2010. The event gives life to a thumping night-life scene too at Foro Italico restaurants and clubs after the end of evening play.

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