You have to go way, way, way back to find the last time a clay Tennis Masters event with Rafael Nadal was considered “wide open.” But that’s the label I put on the upcoming Madrid Masters which begins next week.
Nadal is the King of Clay, there’s no debate. There’s also no debate something’s wrong with him of late. Since injuring his back during that Australian Open final loss, Nadal hasn’t beaten a Top 10 player and more alarmingly lost in the quarterfinal round in his first two European clay events. That’s QUARTERFINALS with a “Q”!
I think it’s confidence and a maybe some post-back hangover. Whatever the case, Nadal, once a clear, easy favorite on this surface is no more. But the contenders also have question marks.
Novak Djokovic is arguably the number two man for the Madrid throne. In addition to seeking a second title there he could also come away with the No. 1 ranking should Rafa fail to make the last eight. But Djokovic is recovering from a right wrist injury he sustained last month and it remains to be seen how well it’s improved after just two weeks treatment.
Roger Federer is having a rebirth of sorts this year, but at age 32 and playing on his least favorite surface, can he win a fourth title in Madrid? He made the Monte Carlo final though looked bad at times in a loss to Stan Wawrinka and during that win over JW Tsonga.
Andy Murray took a month off to rest after a busy start to the season. Even with the back injury now in the past (hopefully), it’s hard to put him among the players who could win the title. And the Scot has yet to beat a Top 10er or reach a final on the season.
So with the “Big 4″ on some shaky ground, Stan has been the man. Wawrinka won the Australian Open then on his best surface grabbed the first big clay prize last month in Monte Carlo. And he’s the defending finalist in Madrid and I absolutely love his draw.
Speaking of the draw, I’ll start with Nadal’s. He’s on top in a tough quadrant that includes Tomas Berdych and Grigor Dimitrov who should battle in the third for the right to play Rafa in the quarters. Rafa will open with friend Juan Monaco or Jurgen Melzer, then maybe Tommy Haas or, not to be confused, Robin Haase. So it should be a nice starter early for the Spaniard, the question is can former finalist Berdych get hot and beat Nadal? Doubtful. Can Dimitrov rekindle the magic that took him past Djokovic in Madrid last year and do it now to Nadal? Doubtful. So it’s hard to bet against Rafa, especially when he so wants to make up for a poor April.
In the Federer second quarter – yes, we could get Federer-Nadal in the semifinals – Roger is paired with Murray in a very loaded section. Before then, Federer will have to get through a tricky opener against either Gilles Simon or Benoit Paire. Then it’s a US Open rematch with Tommy Robredo or perhaps Fernando Verdasco, a blue clay winner in Madrid over Nadal a few years ago. For Murray, he might get Nicolas Almagro in his opener and should he survive, which I don’t think he will, then it’s JW Tsonga. In the high altitude I think Federer should do well and I like him to meet Almagro in the quarters. And honestly, I could see Almagro and his big serve winning that. But…
Of the top players the guy with the best draw is Wawrinka. The 2013 Madrid finalist has Dimitry Tursunov, Mikhail Youzhny (or Delbonis) in his first two rounds. Then a likely, very winnable date with Milos Raonic. The Canadian who should benefit from the quicker conditions and altitude has a decent draw with Kei Nishikori the main obstacle. Still, I like Wawrinka over Milos.
In the last quarter, because of his wrist Djokovic really is the big unknown here. If he’s healthy I don’t see anyone stopping him out to the semis, but it’s a tough road. He’s got Marin Cilic to start, then Fabio Fognini before David Ferrer, no slouch on any surface. So if that wrist isn’t right there’s little margin for error. But the lighter air (as opposed to the heavy, wet conditions from Monte Carlo) should help and I think he gets through. That said, we are just weeks away from the French and if the wrist flares up I doubt Novak would want to risk damaging it further.
So making a pick here is perilous. Nadal is the favorite. He’s hungry, he needs the win the most, but he’s been reeling and Madrid just hasn’t been a sanctuary for him like Paris, Barcelona or Monte Carlo have been. And Federer, who I think will be his semifinal opponent, plays well there (Roger has a better record at the event that Rafa), but I have to go with Nadal if they do meet.
In the second semi, I think Stan is on such a roll right now that it’s going to take a big effort to knock him down. For his sake, I hope Novak’s wrist is back to 100% though even if it is I’m still going to lean to the new bully on the block, Stan, to win it and stun Djokovic.
In the final, I’ll take Nadal to get revenge on Stan for Australia and finally get in the win column this year on European clay. In front of his home fans he has to win.
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