Juan Martin del Potro believes that it is a good thing that Dominic Thiem is posing a major threat to Rafael Nadal, because it makes the clay swing of the year more interesting. Nadal's imperious run on clay was dealt a major blow as he lost to eventual runner-up Thiem in the quarter-finals of the Madrid Open and gave up his status as world No 1 to long-time rival Roger Federer in the process.
However, despite that shock loss, which ended a 21-match winning run on his favoured surface, Nadal goes into this week's Italian Open as the favourite to win a record-extending 32nd Masters 1000 event. A win here would be his eighth title in Rome and get him back to on top of the rankings, overthrowing Federer's stay for a brief period.
The season has been one to remember, with four different players winning the four Masters 1000 events of the year thus far after Alexander Zverev's triumph in Madrid last week, the first time ever. Del Potro, who had won the first Masters 1000 of the year at the Indian Wells, is excited by how the season is panning out and wants to give Nadal a major challenge in the rest of the campaign.
"I think it's good for men's tennis, for the fans as well," Del Potro said, as quoted by the Express, of the variety of recent champions - himself, John Isner, Nadal and Zverev.
"Now, you never know who will win the next title. On clay of course we have a favourite every time and that's Rafa. He's the man to beat in these tournaments. But you have another dangerous player on tour and it will be interesting who is the winner this week."
Del Potro returned from a short break after the Sunshine events in Madrid but crashed out in the third round to qualifier Dusan Lajovic, who eventually crashed out to Thiem. However, the big-hitting Argentine is confident of an improved tournament in the capital of Italy and is ready to give his best as the clay season nears an end.
The Argentine and Nadal are both waiting to learn their second round opponents having been seeded for the draw, giving them a bye to the round of 32.
"I like this tournament. I like to play in Rome. I always have good feelings on these courts," he added. "I know how difficult a tournament it is for me, especially on clay courts but I have confidence to do a good tournament. I think I can play even better than Madrid."