Rafael Nadal could rise to the top on wave of Spanish support at Madrid Masters
Rafael Nadal is the only man in the Madrid Masters draw with three titles since this tournament switched to clay
He may not be the top seed, nor even among the top three seeds at the Mutua Madrid Masters this week, but Rafael Nadal is the favourite here for a reason.
Seeded No4 after missing much of the 2016 season with injury, Nadal is the only man in the draw with three titles since this tournament switched to clay.
He arrived in the Spanish capital having won his 10th title in Monte-Carlo and then his 10th in Barcelona—a double feat that no other man has achieved even once. That took his tally of clay-court titles to a record 51, and his number of clay-court match-wins to 375—and a clean sheet of 10-0 this year.
And it has not just been on clay that Nadal has bounced back from adversity with such vim and vigour. He made the finals at the Australian Open, Acapulco and Miami, and leads the tour for overall match wins, 29 of them. And were it not that his oldest rival, Roger Federer, also burst back on the tour with such abandon from his six-month absence, beating Nadal in the three most lucrative tournaments of the year—the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami—the Spaniard would by now be heading the Race to London and be ranked No4 in the world rather than No5.
But with the Swiss star bypassing all three clay Masters events, and not yet fully committed to the French Open, Nadal is close to overtaking Federer in both ranks. A semi-final run would take him to the top of the Race and the Madrid title would move him to No4 overall—from No9 this January.
And he is, when set against the less-than-perfect runs of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray this year, the favourite to achieve both targets before the tour heads to Rome.
He is the last man to count his chickens: Nadal’s modesty in talking of his achievements is renowned. He admitted:
“I’m very happy because of the start of the year, not only because of the start of the clay season. I think in general it’s been some very good months. Of course, since the beginning of the clay season, I needed to win a title after playing a few finals. I’m very happy for having achieved that.
[But] right now we’re here in another event. We’ll leave the past behind us.”
And of the two men who head the rankings, the other two champions in the draw, and the two finalists last year, he was adamant:
“Maybe they haven’t had the beginning of the year that they would have wished, that’s for sure. But I have no doubts they’re going to be up there fighting for all the major titles from now on until the end of the year. We have to be ready for this.”
If there has been one fly in the ointment for Nadal since taking to the practice courts this week, it is an ear infection. When he finally held his pre-tournament press conference, a day late, he was also hoping for a delay to his first match.
“Yeah, [my ear] is painful. Happened on Friday night. I woke up at three in the morning with pain on the ear.
“Today is a little bit better than yesterday but it’s still bothering me. Is something new for me: I never had. It really bothers a lot because is pain all around here [pointing to the right side of his head] and on the head. Sometimes you get dizzy a little bit with that.
“But it’s fine. I visited the doctor two days ago. Is nothing important. Just takes little bit long, few days. Hopefully going to be good… But it’s true that the tournament, and also my intention, was to play on Tuesday. With this, I think it’s better to start a day later, on Wednesday.”
But as he pointed out: “I am still practising… I trained two and a half hours normally.”
Indeed, he was prompt to court and warming up at 10 sharp this morning, before his hitting partner arrived—and smiling broadly.
Of course, Nadal is a favourite here in Madrid in more ways than one. Yes, he is many people’s pick for the title, but he a favourite in the hearts and minds of all Spanish tennis fans—and more than just Spanish fans, as a brief stroll past his practice court affirms.
Here at home, he certainly feels the love.
“I always felt a special love [here], not only this year. I am not tired of thanking everybody, thanking all the people here in Spain. I’m very well treated all around the world, but of course, I’m not treated anywhere like I am in Spain. The love has always been the same. The support has always been the same. It’s been unconditional.
“As I always said, to play in front of them, for me especially, it gives me a unique feeling. It’s difficult to describe how you feel when you play in front of your people, in front of your crowd, in front of people that really have been helping you in the past to win matches.
“I know the draw is not a dream one, but I also know that I’ve been doing things very well since the beginning of the year. The fact that I play at home, it’s always a plus.”
As for that draw, he is not wrong. He is in the bottom Djokovic half, but the challenges come earlier than the No2 seed, not least in Nadal’s opener against Fabio Fognini, who has beaten him three times, including twice on clay.
And Nadal’s first seed is the dangerous Nick Kyrgios who has a 1-1 record against Nadal, and took the Spaniard to three sets in Rome last year. Currently ranked 20, the young Australian has proved his mettle this year with two wins over Djokovic and an almost-victory over Federer in Miami where he finally lost in three tie-breaks.
So Nadal has his work cut out, but if ‘favourite’ status counts for anything, the Spaniard could well make it three titles in a row come Sunday.