Madrid Masters preview: Big questions for big names Djokovic, Nadal and Federer

Marianne Bevis previews the 2016 Madrid Masters, where Andy Murray is looking to defend his title

The high-altitude Madrid Masters, played out in one of tennis’s most architecturally stunning venues, the Caja Magica, has this year attracted the cream of the men’s tour: All of the top 10, and 18 of the top 20.

Among them are top dog Novak Djokovic for the first time since his opening-match loss in 2013, and Roger Federer, who kept his cards close to his chest until two days before the draw, opting into only his second tournament since the Australian Open and subsequent knee surgery.

Add into the mix world No2 Andy Murray returning to defend his first-ever clay Masters title, last year’s French Open champion, No4 Stan Wawrinka, and Madrid’s most prolific former champion and tennis’s most prolific clay champion, Rafael Nadal, and this has become the ideal draw for the tournament.

Fresh clay endorsements for young…

Then there is the band of younger players putting down strong clay markers as they head to Madrid:

· Dominic Thiem a finalist in Munich;

· Nick Kyrgios a semi-finalist in Estoril;

· Lucas Pouille a finalist in Bucharest;

· Grigor Dimitrov a finalist in Istanbul;

· Borna Coric a finalist in Marrakech;

· Jack Sock a finalist in Houston;

· Pablo Carreno Busta a finalist in Estoril.

… and not so young

· Also gaining some clay-court credentials as the season cranks up towards Roland Garros is a clutch of established names finding renewed form ahead of Madrid: Gael Monfils a finalist in Monte-Carlo;

· Nicolas Almagro champion in Estoril;

· Philipp Kohlschreiber champion in Munich and with a semi run in Barcelona;

· Fernando Verdasco winning Bucharest;

· and back in February, Pablo Cuevas winning back-to-back clay titles in Brazil.

But returning to the top five, Madrid may provide some timely answers to a few of the bigger pre-French Open questions.

Can Djokovic regain clay kudos?

Djokovic, world No1 by a mile, hit the clay having lost only one match in 29 this year, and that by retirement with illness. He had four titles, overtook Nadal to the top of the Masters league table with back-to-back Miami and Wells wins, and now sets his eyes on the one Major missing from his resume, the French Open.

But as defending champion in Monte-Carlo, he lost in his opening match against the 55-ranked Jiri Vesely. The mighty Serb was not at his best, perhaps signs of inevitable mental if not physical fatigue after an extraordinary 18-month run of 110 wins to seven losses and 15 titles—all but one, incidentally, at Masters or Grand Slam level.

He will want to nip any question about his form in the bud, and has the clay clout to do so. He has won four titles from six finals in Rome, been three times a finalist at Roland Garros, and even in Madrid, which he has missed three times since it switched to clay in 2009, he beat Nadal in his 2011 title run.

He does face a tough first challenge in the fast Madrid conditions, Almagro or Coric, but should get the better of the seeds in his quarter, first Roberto Bautista Agut, then Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—though Milos Raonic, who has enjoyed some fine hard-court result this season, may be dangerous on this particular clay.

Djokovic has avoided the resurgent Nadal as well as the Swiss who scored most wins against him last year, Federer, in his half, but he could meet Wawrinka or another in-form player, Kei Nishikori, in the semis.

Can Murray build on his 2015 clay success?

No2 seed Murray won his first two clay titles last year in Munich and Madrid, pushed Djokovic to the limit in the semis of the French Open in a tight five-setter, and ended 2015 with the tour-topping clay win-loss record, 17-1.

But the Briton has had an up-and-down year so far, beginning with a good final run in Australia, a month’s break on paternity leave, three winning days in Davis Cup, but just two matches won through the Indian Wells-Miami swing.

He looked good on Monte-Carlo’s clay on his return to the red stuff, however, beating strong opposition and taking the first set from Nadal in the semis before losing in three. Madrid has yielded his best clay result, too, but this time around, he could meet the revitalised, confident Nadal in the semis.

This is, indeed, a heavyweight half, with Murray possibly opening against Vasek Pospisil, followed by Dimitrov or the durable No16 seed Gilles Simon. The quarters see a returning David Ferrer, who has faced form and fitness problems since their long battle in the Australian Open quarters, or Tomas Berdych, who won their last clay meet in Madrid in 2013. Then it promises to be Federer or Nadal in the semis. Should Murray come through all that, there is Djokovic.

Can Federer hit the red stuff running?

While many will be appraising the rising form of Nadal and the reassertion of Djokovic in Madrid, many will also be appraising Federer in only his second competitive tournament since the Australian Open.

Having pulled out of Rotterdam, Dubai and Indian Wells following knee surgery, he then withdrew from Miami with a stomach virus. Monte-Carlo showed Federer was in decent shape with a run to the quarters with little trouble, but he let slip a set lead against Tsonga.

So the two-time former [clay] champion arrives in Madrid, a place where he has thrived on the faster-than-average clay, with only 13 matches under his belt this year. He arrived later than most, too, but has been packing in the practice.

He will need to be sharp in this tough segment, too. An opening match against No34 Joao Sousa or No48 Nicolas Mahut should be straightforward, but then there is a pile of talent for Round 3: Thiem, Sock, Benoit Paire, or the returning Juan Martin del Potro. Come the quarters, and if Nadal is not across the net, it could be another big talent David Goffin.

Federer is currently undecided about Rome: His progress or otherwise in Madrid may determine the answer if he is to make his hoped-for run at the French Open. He reached the final of Rome last year, too, so there is also the small question of points and rankings to consider for the No3-ranked Swiss.

Wawrinka: fire-power plus clay credentials

Amid constant references to ‘the big four’, the No4-ranked Stan Wawrinka is sometimes overlooked. After all, he not only already has two titles this year but is a former Madrid finalist in 2013, has won in Monte-Carlo, and been a runner-up in Rome—all that on top of his French Open title last year. And very few on the tour can boast both a Grand Slam and a Masters title on the red stuff.

The faster Madrid courts should suit his power game if he finds the consistency that can too often desert him. However after that 2013 final run, he has managed just one win in Madrid. He may, though, be pricked into a fast opening this year by a testing segment that could throw Kyrgios at him in his first match, and more form players in the third: Monfils, Kohlschreiber or Cuevas.

More tough clay opposition looms in the quarters, too: Richard Gasquet, Verdasco, Fabio Fognini, or Nishkori, who is also a past finalist, in 2014, but his is a tricky section.

If Wawrinka makes the semis, he could set a first clay meeting with Djokovic since Roland Garros—a meeting many look forward to with relish.

Is Nadal back to his best?

This may be the biggest question of the tournament, indeed of the rest of the clay season.

Nadal has dominated clay like few players have dominated any surface. The records speak for themselves: seven Rome Masters, nine in Barcelona and Monte-Carlo, and a remarkable nine French Opens. And he arrives at his home Masters, where he has won more than any other player since its move to clay in 2009, on a 10-match winning streak and with a career 39-9 in Madrid. Since 2009, indeed, he has reached the final in six of the last seven years.

It’s easy to forget that the early goings in 2016 were less auspicious for Nadal: a first-round loss in Australia, two semi-final losses in the South American clay season to Cuevas and Thiem, with his victory in Monte-Carlo the first since Hamburg last summer.

But of course confidence breeds confidence, and by the end of Barcelona, Nadal bristled with it. He has incentives here, too, though one suspects he does not need them. He can reclaim the lead over Djokovic in Masters titles: they stand level at 28. And he can claim a record 50th clay title to take the all-time record on that surface, too.

He would probably sacrifice all of that for a 10th French Open title, but success in Madrid, particularly if he does it the hard way via Goffin, Federer, Murray and Djokovic, would be a real boost to his ambitions.

Previous champions (since switch to clay in 2009) in draw: Nadal (three times), Federer (twice), Djokovic (once), Murray (once and defending)
Potential seeds absent: Marin Cilic, John Isner
Wild Cards: Verdasco, Almagro, Monaco, Carreno Busta
Oldest and youngest: Ivo Karlovic is 37, Coric is 19

[NB top eight seeds have a bye in Round 1]

No1 seed Djokovic quarter
R2, Almagro or Coric
R3, first seed, No15 Bautista Agut
QF, No11 Raonic and No7 Tsonga are top seeds
SF, No4 Wawrinka, No13 Monfils, No10 Gasquet and No6 Nishikori are seeds

No4 seed Wawrinka quarter
R2, Guido Pella or Kyrgios
R3, first seed, No13 Monfils
QF, No10 Gasquet and No6 Nishikori are top seeds
SF, No1 Djokovic, No15 Bautista Agut, No11 Raonic and No7 Tsonga are seeds

No3 seed Federer quarter
R2, Sousa or Mahut
R3, first seed, No14 Thiem
QF, No5 Nadal and No12 Goffin are top seeds
SF, No8 Berdych, No9 Ferrer, No16 Simon and No2 Murray are seeds

No2 seed Murray quarter
R2, Pospisil or qualifier
R3, first seed, No16 Simon
QF, No9 Ferrer and No8 Berdych are top seeds
SF, No3 Federer, No 14 Thiem, No12 Goffin and No5 Nadal are seeds

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