The year 2017 seems like the return of the clay-court specialist as unseeded dirt ballers continue to make their mark in the run-up to the French Open.
Top seeds Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Kei Nishikori all struggled through three-set challenges over unseeded opponents on Wednesday in Madrid to move into the third round, while three Top 10-seeded players made their exits.
Djokovic, who fired almost his entire support team ahead of Madrid, was not brimming with confidence in escaping a 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 meeting with Spanish clay veteran and wild card Nicolas Almagro.
“Obviously when you’re not winning too many matches, you have to build the confidence level, so to win matches like this definitely helps confidence,” said Djokovic, who came back from 0-3 down in the final set. “[Almagro] loves playing on clay. He was obviously motivated. He has a lot of strength in his shots, a lot of precision. He can, from both corners, hit equally well. If he doesn’t make many mistakes, he can really beat anyone. But I hung in there and knew that eventually I’m going to get my chances and going to get some looks on the second serves.”
Djokovic will hope to get more looks next round against Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, who defeated Gilles Simon 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(3).
“It’s obvious [that] tomorrow I need to serve pretty well,” Lopez said of facing Djokovic. “That’s my main weapon to be able to beat Novak. I have to take advantage, try not to play long rallies, because Novak is better than me when we play long rallies. I think I have to play an intelligent game, work out my tactics.”
Nadal expectedly got everything he could handle from his nemesis Fabio Fognini, escaping with a little help from the Italian 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-4.
“I think that even though I played really badly, my attitude has been very positive,” said Nadal, who benefited from Fognini missing some sitters and easy volleys on big points throughout the match. “My attitude and the will to win today’s match was there. My level of tennis was not so high today, but I managed to make it through. It was uncomfortable. I think before it wasn’t so windy, but when I started playing, it was a really awful day. It was really windy.”
Nadal will need to up his level for his next opponent, No. 16-seeded Nick Kyrgios who took care of unseeded American Ryan Harrison 6-3, 6-3.
“He’s one of the most difficult players you can play,” Nadal said of the big-ball-striking Aussie. “It’s true that I think on clay he’s a very, very tough player…I have to play really well to be able to beat him. I think I’m ready to do that.”
Nishikori was pummeled in the first set before recovering for a 1-6, 6-0, 6-4 win over Diego Schwartzman of Argentina. He will next meet former French Open finalist David Ferrer, who received a walkover (shoulder injury) from No. 10 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
“I have a great rivalry with David,” said Nishikori, who leads their career head-to-head 8-4. “We’ve played so many great matches, long matches. I always love to play him, because I can challenge myself. I know it’s going to be tough one again. So I will try to prepare well, and hopefully I can win the match.”
No. 5 seed Milos Raonic was a rare two-set winner, defeating Gilles Muller 6-4, 6-4 to book a meeting with No. 9 David Goffin in the third round.
Seeds not so lucky Wednesday were No. 3 Stan Warinka outlasted by France’s Benoit Paire 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, and No. 7 Marin Cilic out-toughed by German wunderkind Alexander Zverev 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-4. Paire will next face Pablo Cuevas who was a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 winner over Nicolas Mahut. Zverev’s reward is a meeting with No. 11 Tomas Berdych, who beat Dutchman Robin Haase 7-6(5), 6-3.
In other action No. 12 Grigor Dimitrov defeated Ivo Karlovic 6-3, 7-5 to set up a popcorn match with No. 8 Dominic Thiem, and lucky loser Borna Coric topped French qualifier Pierre-Hugues Herbert 7-5, 6-4, setting up a meeting with world No. 1 Andy Murray.
Match highlights a-plenty Thursday in Madrid include (2) Djokovic vs. Lopez, (1) Murray vs. (LL) Coric, (4) Nadal vs. (16) Kyrgios (upset alert), (6) Nishikori vs. Ferrer, (5) Raonic vs. (9) Goffin (upset alert), (11) Berdych vs. Zverev (upset alert), and (8) Thiem vs. (12) Dimitrov.
THURSDAY MADRID SCHEDULE
MANOLO SANTANA start 12:00 noon
WTA – C. Vandeweghe (USA) vs  S. Halep (ROU)
Not Before 2:00 pm
ATP – F. Lopez (ESP) vs  N. Djokovic (SRB)
ATP –  A. Murray (GBR) vs [LL] B. Coric (CRO)
Not Before 8:00 pm
ATP –  N. Kyrgios (AUS) vs  R. Nadal (ESP)
Not Before 9:30 pm
WTA – E. Bouchard (CAN) vs  S. Kuznetsova (RUS)
ARANTXA SANCHEZ VICARIO start 12:00 noon
ATP –  K. Nishikori (JPN) vs D. Ferrer (ESP)
Not Before 2:00 pm
WTA – K. Bertens (NED) vs A. Sevastova (LAT)
WTA –  K. Mladenovic (FRA) vs [WC] S. Cirstea (ROU)
ATP –  G. Dimitrov (BUL) vs  D. Thiem (AUT)
ATP – [PR] T. Haas (GER) / M. Mirnyi (BLR) vs  F. Lopez (ESP) / M. Lopez (ESP)
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