Madrid Masters: Can Nadal end Djokovic’s unbeaten run?

The battle between the unbeaten Djokovic and Nadal has the perfect setting, writes Marianne Bevis

rafael nadal and novak djokovic
Novak Djokovic is unbeaten in 2011 so far Photo: Marianne Bevis

rafael nadal and novak djokovic

For an event with such a short history, the Madrid Masters and its Magic Box venue have won more than their share of headlines.

The capital of Spain won tennis Masters status in 2002 and was paired with Paris as part of the European indoor swing in October.

It was the first Masters in Europe to become a “mini Major” when the ATP joined with the WTA to make Madrid a combined event.

Then, with the extension of the tennis calendar to the Far East, the Madrid Masters was moved to May and to clay in 2009, launching the stunning purpose-built Magic Box on the tennis world.

However, the maiden year for the architecturally innovative Caja Magica was not universally admired. The courts in particular came in for criticism for being closer to concrete than clay, uneven and ill prepared.

There were too few practice courts and there were unpopular experiments with bright blue clay designed to match the blue-themed venue.

Many of these problems had been ironed out by 2010 and order was restored as home hero Rafael Nadal won the title for the first time since 2005.

For the event’s 10th anniversary, however, there has been yet another change. The Mutua Madrid Open is being played a week earlier, having swapped places in the calendar with the Rome Masters.

The switch should improve the transition between the major events in the conclusion of the clay season, with the Rome courts and altitude closer to those at Roland Garros, the crowning glory of the spring swing.

But the tennis at Madrid since it moved to the Magic Box has not lacked drama either.

Its inaugural final saw Roger Federer beat Nadal on clay for only the second time in their 23-match rivalry. In the semis, it saw Nadal face beat Novak Djokovic in their third clay Masters showdown in the space of a month: this one lasted over four hours.

Last year, the home crowd celebrated Nadal’s revenge over Federer in the final and, this year, the scene is set for another crucial stage in the rivalry between those same three players.

Nadal is on a 34 match-winning streak on clay and aiming for his 20th Masters title. Djokovic is unbeaten this year, is enjoying a 28 match-winning streak and beat Nadal in their previous two meetings: in two Masters finals.

And Federer has something to prove. He’s behind Nadal and Djokovic in the rankings and has lost to one or other of them in four consecutive tournaments this year.

So, with every top-16 player fit and healthy and filling the top seedings, which of the triumvirate that has dominated the Magic Box will survive Madrid’s draw?

Quarter one: Rafael Nadal

The top seed faces Marcos Baghdatis or a qualifier in his first match, which will not give him sleepless nights. His next match is a less attractive prospect. The strong segment contains Marin Cilic and Mikhail Youzhny but the big danger is unseeded Juan Martin Del Potro fresh from a useful opening clay run in Estoril where he was a straight-sets winner over top seed Robin Soderling.

Clay is not his best surface, and he was beaten by Nadal in the semis in Indian Wells, but he’s improving fast.

Beyond Del Potro lies Jurgen Melzer or Richard Gasquet, both of whom should get the better of Andy Roddick in his first clay event of the year. Melzer’s clay run includes his first Masters semi-final in Monte Carlo, taking the scalp of Federer, and he could well be Nadal’s quarter-final opponent.

Match to watch out for: Gasquet v Melzer, second round

Semi-finalist: Nadal

Quarter two: Roger Federer

What an opening challenge for the No3 seed. Milos Raonic is the new face of 2011, rising from 153 at the start of the year to a current ranking of 27.

The mature 20-year-old has a game suited to hard courts but has still made a good start on the clay, especially in reaching, at the time of writing, the semis in Estoril with a win over the tough Gilles Simon.

In Feliciano López, though, he faces a man also in good form -he has reached the finals in Belgrade -before the chance to play Federer.

After his loss to Melzer in Monte Carlo, Federer has some regrouping to do, and his opener is not the easiest way to do it. But Madrid has been a good venue for the Swiss so he should progress, and should next beat Fernando Verdasco.

The bottom of this quarter has some challenging names, not least Nicolas Almagro who is enjoying his first month in the top 10 after an excellent clay run of three finals and two titles. Beyond him lie Soderling or Alexandr Dolgopolov, and it’s just possible that Almagro could be Federer’s quarter-final opponent:

Match to watch out for: Raonic v López, first round

Semi-finalist: Federer

Quarter three: Andy Murray

After a shocker of a hard-court run, losing his opening matches in Rotterdam, Indian Wells and Miami, Andy Murray made a strong return in his opening clay event in Monte Carlo, losing to eventual champion Nadal.

He won the Madrid title in 2008 when it was an indoor event, and he won’t fancy facing the gritty Simon, who has made a speedy return to form after injury in 2010, in his first match.

The alternative is Ivan Ljubicic, who made a good showing in Monte Carlo before facing Nadal with a sore shoulder. If the Croat is fully fit, he is a dangerous man.

Murray’s next likely opponent is Viktor Troicki, though Florian Mayer has just had a great run to the final in Munich.

In the top of Murray’s quarter lie either Tomas Berdych -not hugely convincing in Monte Carlo -or Nikolay Davydenko -rediscovering some good form in Munich where he has reached the final.

Ranked 40, he is always a dangerous ‘sleeper’ and, as long as a niggling ankle holds up, he may give this quarter a shake-up. But then the unpredictable Gael Monfils may do the same.

Match to watch out for: Ljubicic v Simon, first round

Semi-finalist: Murray

Quarter four: Novak Djokovic

The Serb has been nothing short of scintillating this year, and his unabated run -now at 29 matches after advancing to the Belgrade final with a walkover from an injured Janko Tipsarevic -should face few threats before the quarterfinal.

His opening opponent may be Ernests Gulbis, though on present form, the Latvian is beatable by Kevin Anderson, who very nearly took out Verdasco in the quarters in Estoril this week.

The next match is an interesting one, pitting Stan Wawrinka against Juan Carlos Ferrero, who has just made his return from surgery with a quarter-final finish in Barcelona. It’s a big ask to get past the powerful Swiss, but Wawrinka has not had huge success on clay so far this year.

Either way, Djokovic should progress to what is an intriguing top section in his quarter. The No6 seed, David Ferrer, is on a wonderful run this season, reaching the finals of both Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He should face another comeback star, Mardy Fish, who celebrated his first entry into the top 10 last week.

On this surface, Ferrer ought to sail through and he will also give Djokovic his sternest test since Nadal in Miami. It has the makings of the quarter-final match of the draw, as long as the leg strapping Ferrer carried in Barcelona is gone.

Match to watch out for: Ferrer v Fish, third round.

Semi-finalist: Djokovic

Final: Djokovic v Nadal

Winner: Nadal

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