Madrid Masters preview: Who can break stranglehold of champs Djokovic, Murray and Nadal?
Marianne Bevis looks at the favourites and the challengers ahead of the start of the Madrid Masters
As the tour heads into the demanding double-header of the Madrid and Rome Masters this year, the men’s line-up differs very little from this exact week last year.
The same top five players back then were missing only one, an injured Roger Federer, which bumped Spanish favourite and Rafael Nadal from No5 into the top four seeds with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. This year, Federer has opted out of both clay Masters after storming through Australia, Indian Wells and Miami unbeaten, and again Nadal has benefitted with the No4 seeding.
The same four men also continue to have a stranglehold on the title. Since the tournament’s move to clay in 2009, only Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray have lifted the trophy, with the top two seeds, Djokovic and Murray, contesting the final last year. Djokovic won, but come Rome, Murray would exact revenge in the final to claim his first clay Masters. And he went from strength to strength, even though he and Djokovic again faced one another at clay’s climax, the French Open, with the Serb sealing his career Slam.
Will Murray and Djokovic vie for dominance again?
It would take Murray many years to really master the red stuff in the way he mastered hard and grass courts, even though he spent some of his formative years training and living in Barcelona. His lack of success was, in large part, down to a chronic back problem that eventually forced him to pull out of Rome and Roland Garros in 2013 and undergo back surgery later that year.
The rewards soon followed: In 2015, he won in both Munich and Madrid having never made a clay final before. And last year, he impressed still more, beginning with a semi run in Monte-Carlo, finals in Madrid and Roland Garros, and that Rome title.
The rest of 2016 is history: undefeated on grass, winning his second Olympic gold, unbeaten through the last five tournaments of the year, claiming the No1 ranking with his first World Tour Finals trophy. And that is one thing that has changed in the draw this year: The Briton is the top seed to Djokovic’s No2.
Murray does, of course, have plenty of points to defend, but not as many as Djokovic this side of the grass season. Both, too, missed Miami with elbow problems, but Murray picked up some clay-court time in Barcelona with a semi run after a lack-lustre return in Monte-Carlo.
Meanwhile, Djokovic has yet to advance beyond the quarters of a tournament since winning Doha, and he dropped a bombshell with his arrival in Madrid by announcing his separation from his coaching team of a decade. He is, instead, here with his brother.
In this context, then, it is a big ask to expect Djokovic to defend his title, though he has a decent early draw. His task is made all the worse by facing a reversal of last year’s draw. In 2016, Murray met and beat Nadal in the semis: This year, it is Djokovic who has fallen in Nadal’s half.
The charging Nadal
No-one before had won 10 titles at a single tournament, but in the space of a fortnight, Nadal had done it twice. First, he picked up his 10th Monte-Carlo title, his 29th Masters, then he won his 10th Barcelona title.
But looking at the Spaniard’s form so far this year, it should not perhaps have been a surprise. After all, he bounced into this season from an injury-blighted 2016 to make the finals at the Australian Open, Acapulco and Miami. Now with Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, he arrives at his home Masters with 51 clay titles, 71 overall.
It is perhaps also significant that Federer is absent: The Swiss has denied his oldest rival three times this year. But Nadal’s is not an easy quarter. He has the dangerous Nick Kyrgios as his first seed—they currently stand at a win apiece—and that after a possible meeting with Fabio Fognini. Beyond that, some more big hitters lurk in his quarter: a returning Milos Raonic, the in-form Karen Khachanov, and the equally in-form David Goffin.
But by Nadal’s standards, he has relatively few points to defend until the end of the clay season: the semis in Madrid, quarters in Rome, and the third round in Paris. Thereafter, he has only 370 points to defend until the end of the year. Maybe it will be the Spaniard, then, who challenges for the No1 spot by the end of the year.
Will a new face make a run?
No13 seed Lucas Pouille is at a career high after a breakthrough 12 months, and following a slow start to 2017, he has impressed in Marseille and Dubai, made a semi run in Monte-Carlo, and won in Budapest. He is lined up to be Murray’s first seed, though, with unseeded Richard Gasquet here, too.
Also in Murray’s quarter are Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov, and the former beat Murray only last week in Barcelona before losing to Nadal. Thiem also won Rio earlier in the year. A brilliant start to 2017 from Dimitrov tailed off, but he shone in Madrid’s Tie-break Tens this week, and is a danger unless the crafty Philipp Kohlschreiber, his first challenger, hits form.
And what about No3 Wawrinka?
Let’s not forget that the Swiss is a former Monte-Carlo and French Open champion, though his best runs this year have been on hard courts: the semis in Australia and the final of Indian Wells.
He is yet to show his clay form this season, but even so he should not be underestimated, and again, it was only Federer who stopped him in those big runs.
He could meet Murray in the semis, but first has to get by the in-form Pablo Carreno Busta, with big men Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic beyond.
Previous [clay] Madrid champions in draw: Nadal (3), Djokovic (2), Murray (1)
Potential seeds  out of main draw: No4 Federer
Clay titlists this year in draw: Thiem (Rio), Pablo Cuevas (Sao Paulo), Borna Coric (still in qualies) (Marrakech), Nadal (Monte-Carlo, Barcelona), Pouille (Budapest), Carreno Busta and Gilles Muller contest Estoril final, Alexander Zverev contests Munich final, Raonic and Cilic contest Istanbul final
Britons in action: No1 Murray, No51 Dan Evans
[NB top 8 seeds have bye in Round 1, so first match is Round 2]
No1 seed Murray quarter
R2, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez or Marius Copil
R3, first seed, Pouille
QF, Seeds are Thiem and Dimitrov
SF, Wawrinka and Cilic are top seeds
No3 seed Wawrinka quarter
R2, Benoit Paire or Carreno Busta
R3, first seed, Jack Sock
QF, Seeds are Cilic and Berdych
SF, Murray and Thiem are top seeds
No4 seed Nadal quarter
R2, Fognini or Joao Sousa
R3, first seed, Kyrgios
QF, Seeds are Raonic and Goffin
SF, Djokovic and Kei Nishikori are top seeds
No2 seed Djokovic quarter
R2, Nicolas Almagro or Tommy Robredo
R3, first seed, Gael Monfils
QF, Seeds are Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Nishikori
SF, Nadal and Raonic are top seeds