After a three year hiatus, Roger Federer is finally returning to clay this week in Madrid. The 37-year-old is well-removed from the knee issues and now in his last few years, wants another, perhaps final, shot on the red stuff he grew up on.
If you are expecting big things from Roger this week, I would say “pump your brakes” because he hasn’t made a clay final in four years and the Madrid field is absolutely stacked. So despite how well he’s played this season and I know the altitude will help him, I have to think the rust is going to show on Federer.
To the draw!
NOVAK DJOKOVIC QUARTER
There just isn’t a comfortable draw for anyone this week. Not straight walks to the semifinals. Not even for Novak Djokovic who really needs one. For whatever reason, the Serb has again hit the skids going just 5-3 in the first three Masters events. The 2-time Madrid champ could be tested immediately by Grigor Dimitrov, then he could get Marco Cecchinato who faces Diego Schwartzman in the first round. Juan Martin Del Potro makes his clay debut, but I don’t expect much. The Argentine who is coming back for a second time this season from a bad knee is in a nice little section, but maybe someone like Dusan Lajovic gets through to face his countryman in the quarters. So while Dimitorv or Schwartzman could push Novak a bit, he should get through.
The Pick: Novak Djokovic
DOMINIC THIEM QUARTER
Might we see a Dominic Thiem-Roger Federer Indian Wells rematch, this time on the Austrian’s preferred surface? I think that Federer’s a good pick to get to that quarterfinal spot, but Thiem, a finalist the last two years, might have to open against Pablo Carreno Busta followed by Fabio Fognini. Meanwhile, Federer has either the young Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina or Richard Gasquet who’s returning from injury, then Gael Monfils or David Goffin who are also coming off of injury. So a great couple rounds for Roger to get used to the dirt, but Thiem, who just beat Nadal in Barcelona, has to be the favorite here.
The Pick: Dominic Thiem
ALEXANDER ZVEREV QUARTER
Among the Top 10, Alexander Zverev is by far been the biggest bust of 2019. After winning the ATP Finals last fall, hopes and expectations were high for the German, but he just hasn’t delivered winning just four matches in his last seven events. Now, he has Madrid final and next week Rome title points to defend, so the pressure mounts for the 22-year-old. And while he’s reeling, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is also in his peer group, continues to impress. He’s in the Estoril final again this weekend and could meet Zverev in the quarters. Both have tricky draws with Zverev lined up to face Roberto Bautista Agut in his opener (RBA faces the retiring David Ferrer in his finale), then Borna Coric. Tsitsipas could tangle with Joao Sousa then Fernando Verdasco or possibly the struggling Karen Khachanov. The big Russian, who like Zverev ended 2018 with his biggest title in Paris, faces the tough Jaume Munar. History says Zverev should get through, but going by their form right now, the edge goes to Tsitsipas.
The Pick: Stefanos Tsitsipas
RAFAEL NADAL QUARTER
Who would have believed for the first time in 15 years, Rafael Nadal enters May without even a clay title on the year! And he’s “only” won the clay version of this event four times in ten tries. So with the altitude an obstacle for him in Madrid, it’s not one of his better clay stops compared to the other events. That said, after coming up short in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, I’m sure he’ll be even more focused to right the shit and win again this week, especially in front of his home fans. And you have to like his draw with a young Canadian to start in either FAA or Denis Shapovalov (what a first round match!), then maybe Frances Tiafoe or Nikolaz Basilashvili followed by Daniil Medvedev, Stan Wawrinka or Kei Nishikori in the quarters. I’ll go with the Russian to come out, but even though it could be a good surface for Medvedev, Rafa’s my pick. I know the confidence isn’t there at the moment, but that’s why he needs to find it and it feels like this is a good week for that.
The Pick: Rafael Nadal
Thiem d Djokovic: I’m not sold on Novak yet and Thiem has made the finals the last two years and already has big wins over Federer and Nadal.
Nadal d Tsitsipas: Rafa too strong for the Greek.
Nadal d Thiem: Rafa avenges Barcelona loss in style.
Rafa beating Thiem in the final? With the way things have been going this year, I doubt that happens. There are several players who could reach the final as a lot of players right now appear be vulnerable, and with the elevation, the Madrid clay doesn’t play like the other events.
Of the court the big story is Roger’s return and it could go great or he could get blown out. Practice matches are a lot different than playing a an official one.
And we also have the return of Delpo plus the unusual fact that the Top 3 in the world – Djokovic, Nadal and Zverev – are all off-form.
So, even with the Big 3 back together on the dirt for the first time in years, this shapes up as one of the most wide-open clay Masters in a very long time.
It should be fun!
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