Friday May 4th, 2012

It's time to stop wondering how Madrid's blue clay will play and start watching. The draws for the Madrid Open are out and as I wipe the blue dust from my notebook, here are a few observations for what's shaping up to be a very exciting tournament. Main draw play begins on Saturday. Here are the full women's and men's draws.

Maria Sharapova Fresh off a win in Stuttgart, Maria Sharapova has a shot at taking over the No. 1 ranking in Madrid. (Getty Images)

1. No. 1 up for grabs (kinda): Maria Sharapova has a slim chance of taking over the No. 1 spot from Victoria Azarenka. She needs to win the title and Azarenka has to lose in the first round. Like I said, it's a slim chance but not completely out of reach considering Azarenka has drawn Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round. The two played in Indian Wells and Kuznetsova got only three games off the eventual champion. But Vika's 0-2 against the 2009 French Open champion on clay. An opening-round loss isn't out of the question.

Of course, Sharapova would have to do her part and win the title. The draw gods haven't made things easy for her, as she has by far the toughest road. Much like Miami, she's drawn all the big hitters in her half: Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur. Sharapova could face Serena in the quarterfinals in a match that would surely turn heads.

2. Isner's tough road: Speaking of unkind, John Isner won't have an opportunity to play himself into form, as his draw is absolutely brutal. His projected road to the final starts with a second-round match against Marin Cilic, then Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and some guy named Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. All this while trying to navigate the slippery blue clay that is reportedly playing heavy and yielding lower bounces than usual, which could take some of the bite off Isner's serve.

3. Roger returns: The last time we saw Roger Federer, he lost to Andy Roddick in Miami, snapping a 16-match winning streak that produced three straight titles and saw him regain his dominant aura. With Novak Djokovic going on to take Miami and Nadal getting back to his clay-rolling ways, Federer has faded a bit from the conversation. That should change this week when he takes the court.

Federer will have to get going right out of the blocks, as he'll have a tough first match against either Milos Raonic or David Nalbandian. From there he could get Richard Gasquet (who beat him in Rome last year), clay stalwart David Ferrer in the quarterfinals and then a blockbuster semifinal against Djokovic. We all remember what happened the last time those two played on clay, right?

4. Matches to watch: Some appealing matches will come early:

ATP: David Nalbandian vs. Milos Raonic (first round); Richard Gasquet vs. Thomaz Bellucci (first round); Radek Stepanek vs. Bernard Tomic (first round); John Isner vs. Marin Cilic (second round); Ryan Harrison vs. J0-Wilfried Tsonga (second round); Stan Wawrinka vs. Feliciano Lopez (second round); Gilles Simon vs. Marcos Baghdatis (second round); Roger Federer vs. Richard Gasquet (third round); John Isner vs. Juan Martin del Potro (third round).

WTA: Victoria Azarenka vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova (first round); Mona Barthel vs. Julia Goerges (first round); Li Na vs. Muguruza Blanco (first round); Christina McHale vs. Sofia Arvidsson (first round); Kaia Kanepi vs. Lucie Safarova (first round); Venus Williams vs. Angelique Kerber (second round); Caroline Wozniacki vs. Mona Barthel/Julia Goerges (second round); Victoria Azarenka vs. Ana Ivanovic (third round); Serena Williams vs. Caroline Wozniacki (third round); Maria Sharapova vs. Jelena Jankovic (third round). 5. Miscellaneous observations: Ivanovic has lost her first match in Madrid the last two years. ... Federer is 40-3 since the U.S. Open. ... Agnieszka Radwanska has been drawn into Azarenka's half in every tournament they're both been in the field. ... Seven Two of Nadal's 18 career clay losses have come in Madrid, including last year's final against Djokovic. ... Serena Williams won a three-hour, 26-minute match two years ago against Vera Dushevina, her only victory in two Madrid Open appearances. ... Aravane Rezai won the Madrid Open in surprising fashion two years ago, beating Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Venus Williams.

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