Madrid Open men's preview: Nadal looks to find form on clay
Roger Federer and Andy Murray are the top two seeds at next week's Madrid Open, the fourth ATP Masters 1000 event of the season. With No. 1 Novak Djokovic opting out of the tournament to rest in advance of the French Open, the field is slightly more open. Any one of the top 8 seeds, including No. 3 Rafael Nadal, No. 4 Kei Nishikori and No. 5 Milos Raonic, could walk away with the title. Here's how the draw breaks down:
Federer has a very tough draw
Given what happened to Serena Williams in the women's draw, Madrid serves as yet another reminder that being a top seed doesn't guarantee anything. Leading the top half of the draw, Federer has a bye into the second round but could face Aussie phenom Nick Kyrgios in the second round, which would be their first career meeting. Waiting in the third round could be either 16th seed John Isner or Jeremy Chardy, who beat Federer in Rome last year. Federer is then projected to face sixth seed Tomas Berdych before a possible semifinal against either Nadal or Wawrinka. If Federer and Nadal do face-off in the semifinals, it would be their first match since the 2014 Australian Open semifinals and their first on clay in nearly two years.
The clock is ticking for Nadal
Can Nadal find his form on clay in time for the French Open? After a confidence-boosting week at the Monte Carlo Masters—where he played a very competitive semifinal against Djokovic—Nadal laid an egg in Barcelona and lost in straight sets to Fabio Fognini. He has a very workable early-round draw in Madrid and as he tries to fend off Nishikori and Raonic to secure the No. 4 seed for Paris, every win counts. He'll play either Steve Johnson or a qualifier in the second round. No. 15 seed Kevin Anderson is the highest-ranked player he could possible face in the third round. Looming in the quarterfinals are a slumping Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov or a rematch against Fognini. Win through those and he could face Federer in the semifinals, and a win there and his game could snap into place.
Murray tries to change his luck in Madrid
Since the tournament switched to clay in 2009, Murray has never made it past the quarterfinal stage. Along with the Paris Indoors, it is his least successful Masters event. Can he break that barrier this year? Seeded No. 2, his draw is a tough one, especially considering he's coming off a week at the Munich Open where rain delays threw off the schedule and forced him to play his quarterfinal and semifinal matches on the same day. Murray will likely open against Philipp Kohlschreiber, who nearly knocked him out of the French Open last year, with matches against Gael Monfils and Raonic looming before the semifinals. Get that far and he could face two top-notch clay-courters in Nishikori or David Ferrer.
Under the radar players to watch
If you're looking for potential bracket-busters, look no further.
- Gael Monfils: He could be the one to end Murray's run in Madrid early. The Frenchman played aggressive clay-court tennis to make the Monte Carlo semifinals, only to follow it up with a three-set loss to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the semifinals of the Bucharest Open the following week. He opens against Viktor Troicki in the first round and then can face either Martin Klizan or Marcel Granollers in the second. Win and he could face Murray in the third round.
- Milos Raonic: How's this for a stat: Raonic's career winning percentage of clay (60%) is actually higher than his winning percentage on grass (56%). The numbers may be slightly skewed given the limited number of opportunities to play on grass, but Raonic proved by making the Rome semifinals last year that he can win on this surface. Madrid's altitude will give his serve additional pop but the question is whether it will affect his strokes off the ground. The ball can be very difficult to control in Madrid and Raonic may actually prefer a slower surface.
- Kei Nishikori: Last year's finalist looked solid en route to the title in Barcelona last week and he has a nice draw to the quarterfinals here. Another good run in Madrid and he could be the most likely challenger to Nadal and Djokovic in Paris. A deep run could also put him in good position to nab the No. 4 seed in Paris if Nadal struggles over the next two weeks.
John Isner: There's no doubt Isner is playing better tennis as of late but he's still dogged by his inability to play consistently outside of North America. If he can get himself to the third round he has a great opportunity to change that around against Federer—Isner's lone win over the Swiss came on European clay in Fed Cup.
- Jack Sock: The young American was one of the biggest surprises of the Spring season, breaking through to win his first ATP title, on clay nonetheless, in Houston. Never short on confidence, Sock can do some damage if his grip-and-rip style stays on. He opens against Barcelona finalist Pablo Andujar and could play either 12th-seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Lukas Rosol in the second round. Win through and he'll likely face sixth-seed Berdych in the third round.
Must-see projected quarterfinals if the seeds hold
Federer vs. Berdych: A rematch of the 2011 "blue clay" final.
Nadal vs. Wawrinka: The two have not played each other since the 2014 Australian Open final and it would be a rematch of the 2013 Madrid final.
Ferrer vs. Nishikori: Their grinding semifinal in Madrid last year, which Nishikori won 7–6(5), 5–7, 6–3, was one of the most memorable ATP matches of the season.
Murray vs. Raonic: This has always been a difficult match-up for Murray in a best-of-three format. And Raonic's serve should get a boost in Madrid's thin air.