Madrid Masters preview: Can Djokovic, Del Potro or young guns halt the Nadal runaway train?
Can Novak Djokovic or Juan Martin del Potro stop Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Masters this week?
The Madrid Masters marks its 10th anniversary at the iconic Caja Magica this year, and the Spanish icon Manolo Santana will be centre stage more than once during this important stop on the tennis tour.
The former world No1 and four-time Major champion turns 80 during his final year as tournament director at this prestigious event, but still continues to welcome his star players in person. And the biggest star is surely the one that Santana hopes and expects to lift the title on his last day in post: Rafael Nadal.
Nadal the record-maker—but No1 under threat
Four times a champion since the Madrid Masters moved onto clay in 2009, Nadal, who turns 32 next month, arrives in the Spanish capital as unbeatable on the red stuff as he was when he made the clean sweep of the tour’s three clay Masters—Monte-Carlo, Madrid and Rome—and the French Open in 2010. It is a story of remarkable consistency, longevity and sheer grit for a man who, less than two years back, injured his wrist so badly that he played only five more events in 2016, and then did not play between his quarter-final retirement at the Australian Open this year and his return to clay last month.
That his enforced injury absence has left him fresher and fitter than ever for his beloved clay has shown in his remarkable results.
Again at No1, he swept to an 11th Monte-Carlo and 11th Barcelona title, took his run of clay wins to 19, and his run of sets to a record 46 dating back to his 10th French Open title last June. Along the way, he totted up his 400th match-win on clay, and dropped no more than five games in any match in Monaco or Barcelona.
Should he win in Madrid, he would extend his lead in Masters titles to 32, and with a 34-5 record at the Caja Magica, and an overall clay record of 401-35, the question remains: Who can stop him?
Not Roger Federer, who has opted out of the entire clay swing, though the Swiss could reclaim the No1 ranking if Nadal falls short of the Madrid title—as if Nadal needed any incentive to focus his mind.
Not Stan Wawrinka, a Roland Garros champion and one of the few players to beat Nadal on clay, in Rome 2015. The other Swiss continues his rehab from double knee surgery.
Not Andy Murray, who beat Nadal to take the 2015 Madrid title: He will not return from hip surgery until the grass swing.
Nor can three men who beat him away from clay last year do any damage: Gilles Muller, Nick Kyrgios and Sam Querrey are all missing from the draw.
Who then? The obvious name is fellow Madrid champion Novak Djokovic.
Can Djokovic bounce back to his Rafa-beating form?
Djokovic may have slipped to No12 in the ranks, and may have continued to struggle with form and confidence since his return in Australia after six months off the tour, but the former No1 has an outstanding record in clay Masters. Twice he has won in Madrid, four times in Rome from eight finals, and twice in Monte-Carlo from four finals.
However, Djokovic’s form this season following minor surgery on his elbow has demonstrated both a lack of confidence and a loss of match-sharpness—hardly surprising given that he has played only 10 matches, and won just five of them, since Wimbledon last year.
But after restructuring his coaching team three times in under a year, Djokovic has now returned to his tried and tested former coach Marian Vajda, and looks trim and happy in the burgeoning social media posts in Madrid.
This time, Djokovic is in the opposite side of the draw from Nadal, and should the Serb make it to the final, he could arguably expect to do better against the Spaniard than anyone else.
Djokovic leads their head to head 26-24, and while Nadal won their last match, in Madrid, Djokovic won the previous seven, including in Rome, Monte-Carlo and Roland Garros. He also beat Nadal to claim the 2011 Madrid title: No-one has taken Nadal to task on clay to such an extent.
However, being seeded outside the top eight has left Djokovic vulnerable to tough draws in the early stages, and that is exacerbated in Madrid by facing Monte-Carlo runner-up, the unseeded Kei Nishikori, in the first round of a possible six. The Japanese star has, incidentally, reached the Madrid quarters or better in each of the past five years, including a 2014 runner-up finish.
And it does not get any easier: the second round brings either Kyle Edmund, at a career-high 23 and with good form on clay, or Daniil Medvedev who won the Sydney title at the start of the year.
Djokovic could meet No8 seed David Goffin, himself no mean clay player and returning to form after his accident in Rotterdam, then No3 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the quarters. Also in this packed quarter are dangerous players Hyeon Chung—who beaten the Serb in Australia—Denis Shapovalov, and Milos Raonic.
Can Thiem down Nadal again?
Dominic Thiem was the last man to beat Nadal on clay, in Rome last year, and although the Spaniard got the better of the Austrian in their other three 2017 matches, Thiem also beat Nadal on Argentina’s clay in 2016. Certainly the No5 seed shines brightest on clay: seven of Thiem’s nine titles have come on the red stuff, along with four further finals.
But in Monte-Carlo, Nadal beat him 6-0, 6-2, and his only top-25 win this season was over a lack-lustre Djokovic in the same tournament. He was hindered by a foot injury during March, but should certainly survive a decent early draw to meet Nadal in the quarters. He will hope to find his form and intensity along the way, for only his very best—and aggressive tactics—will give him a chance against the increasingly pro-active offensive tennis of the defending champion.
What about the young guns, then?
Based on both form and ranking, the impressive Alexander Zverev, who only turned 21 last month, is surely the favourite to make a run. He picked up the first of two Masters titles in Rome last year, was a finalist in Miami in March and a semi-finalist in Monte-Carlo.
He also clinched the Munich title this weekend—and perhaps there lies the rub. Zverev scored an important win over fellow young gun Chung in the semis, but how much will have left in the tank for a tough few days in Madrid?
He could face another young star who has made a huge breakthrough this season, fellow former junior No1 Stefanos Tsitispas, who will hot-foot it to Madrid from a semi run in Estoril this weekend.
Tsitsipas broke the top 50 with a runner-up finish in Barcelona and is now headed to No40 courtesy of wins over the likes of Thiem, Diego Schwartzman, Pablo Carreno Busta, and Kevin Anderson over the last fortnight. Does he have anything left in his legs? His stamina, rather than is prodigious ability, will come under the microscope in his first match.
Shapovalov took to clay with vim this weekend with a quick win over Tennis Sandgren in his Madrid opener, and stands at a career-high 42 after some good wins on hard courts. But his first-round losses in Monte-Carlo and Budapest are evidence that clay is not the attacking Canadian’s natural habitat, and he has had the misfortune to fall in the draw’s toughest quarter, the same one as Djokovic. He plays Benoit Paire or Lucas Pouille next, before Dimitrov and then possibly Djokovic or Goffin.
So who else could cause any upsets in Madrid?
No4 seed Juan Martin del Potro has been one of the men to beat this year, won back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells, and has taken a breat following a semi run in Miami. The Argentine is 21-4 this year, and his big power game is most at home on hard courts. That said, his only clay Masters semis have come in Madrid, in 2009 and 2012, and he has avoided the biggest names in his quarter. Should he make it to a semi against Nadal, he will have little experience to draw on—they have played only twice on clay, once indoors in Davis Cup and way back in 2007 at Roland Garros, both wins for the Spaniard
Richard Gasquet, down at No29, has nevertheless shown some of his old clay form this spring: the semis in Marrakech followed by the quarters in Monte-Carlo. Much will depend on the chronic back problem that dogs the Frenchman, but what looked on paper to be a tough opener against Tomas Berdych suggests he is feeling good: a 76-minute 6-4, 6-2 win.
Goffin has not yet peaked following his eye injury in Rotterdam, but the signs are there. His clay form has shown up before at Roland Garros, Monte-Carlo and Rome, but he has landed in the toughest segment in Madrid: He could face Chung in his opener, then Djokovic, followed by the man who denied him at the World Tour Finals, Dimitrov.
Spaniards to watch include Pablo Carreno Busta, semi-finalist in Barcelona and Estoril, Roberto Bautista Agut, winner of two titles this year and with a few clay wins, too, and—if only for their sentimental value, Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco.
Lopez, who takes over as tournament director in Madrid next year, has played in all 17 editions of the Madrid Masters dating back through its pre-clay version, while Verdasco missed only the first, and will hope to score his 500th match-win in Madrid this week. He has only to beat Italian Paolo Lorenzi to do so.
Mutua Madrid Masters draw
56-men, 16 seeds, top eight with Round 1 byes
Oldest: Lopez (36) Youngest: Shapovalov (19)
Wild cards: Pablo Andujar, Roberto Carballes Baena, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Tstisipas
Who is missing in Madrid?
Potential seeded absentees are: Federer, Marin Cilic, and Querrey.
Other main-draw absentees: in ranking order, Kyrgios, Wawrinka, Filip Krajinovic, Andrey Rublev, Muller, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Murray, Andreas Seppi
Previous champions in draw*: Nadal (4), Djokovic (2)
Previous finalists in draw*: Thiem, Nishikori, Berdych (plus Nadal x 3)
[*since moving to clay in 2009]
Clay titlists this year in draw: Nadal (Monte-Carlo and Barcelona), Thiem (Buenos Aires), Schwartzman (Rio), Fabio Fognini (Sao Paulo), Andujar (Marrakech), Zverev (Munich)
Potential quarter-finals, top half:
Nadal vs Thiem: Other seeds, Schwartzman and Carreno Busta
Also here: Coric, Gael Monfils, Lopez
Del Potro vs Anderson: Other seeds, Bautista Agut and Berdych
Also here: Khachanov, Gasquet, Philipp Kohlschreiber
Potential quarter-finals, bottom half:
Goffin vs Dimitrov: Other seeds, Djokovic and Pouille
Also here: Chung, Edmund, Nishikori, Shapovalov, Milos Raonic
Isner vs A Zverev: Other seeds, Jack Sock and Fognini
Also here: Verdasco, Tsitsipas