Madrid Open draw analysis
The first joint mandatory tournament of the clay season begins this weekend. The top players on both tours arrive in Madrid searching for confidence and quality as they prepare for the French Open, which is only three weeks away. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic return to action with the No. 1 ranking on the line, while Serena Williams and Li Na take to the red clay for the first time this season after an extended break. With so many questions surrounding the players who have dominated this part of the season before, we're looking at a fairly wide-open field this year.
Here's how the draws break down for the Madrid Open. The WTA main draw starts Saturday and the men open Sunday.
Djokovic has a tougher draw than Nadal: To reclaim the No. 1 ranking, Djokovic needs to win the tournament and have Nadal lose before the quarterfinals. That's a tall order in both respects, given their respective draws. Djokovic got the tougher half, drawing Monte Carlo Masters champion and 2013 Madrid finalist Stanislas Wawrinka as a potential semifinal opponent. The Serb, who is coming back from a wrist injury, also faces early tests in a section packed with Marin Cilic, Fabio Fognini, Ernests Gulbis and Alexandr Dolgopolov, while David Ferrer potentially looms in the quarterfinals. Djokovic's tougher early rounds could open things up for Wawrinka to make another run to the final. His aggressive mindset and easy power are built for Madrid success.
Update: Djokovic announced his withdrawal from the tournament on Sunday due to his right arm injury. "I did everything possible in order to play in Madrid ... but unfortunately my right arm injury has flared up again," he said.
As for Nadal, the top seeds in his half are Federer (who is 2-13 on clay against the Spaniard), Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray. Grigor Dimitrov is also lurking; he's projected to play Berdych in the third round, with the winner likely facing Nadal in the quarterfinals. Whether it's Dimitrov or Berdych, that match for Nadal would be must-watch.
Federer vs. Nadal?: Federer vs. Nadal XXXIV could happen in the semifinals. Because Nadal is struggling with his confidence, this might be Federer's best chance to beat his longtime rival on clay since doing so in Madrid in 2009. Madrid's quick conditions have always suited Federer, and as his run to the Monte Carlo final showed, he possesses enough belief in his body and game to play aggressively.
Andy Murray's nightmare draw: Look, Murray wouldn't win the title regardless of the draw, but his chance of earning a good chunk of points over the next few weeks took a hit in Madrid when he was put in Nadal's half and Federer's quarter. His first non-Davis Cup match on clay this year could be against Nicolas Almagro, who upset Nadal at the Barcelona Open last week, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga potentially awaits in the third round. Murray might want to book his Rome hotels a few days earlier than expected.
First-round matches to watch: Fabio Fognini vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov; Ernests Gulbis vs. Jerzy Janowicz; Tommy Robredo vs. Roberto Bautista Agut.
Potential early-round matches to watch: Novak Djokovic vs. Marin Cilic (second round); Ernests Gulbis vs. Fabio Fognini/Alexandr Dolgopolov (second round); John Isner vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber (second round); Andy Murray vs. Nicolas Almagro (second round); Grigor Dimitrov vs. Tomas Berdych (third round); Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Andy Murray (third round); Milos Raonic vs. Kei Nishikori (third round); Novak Djokovic vs. Fabio Fognini/Ernests Gulbis/Alexandr Dolgopolov (third round).
Prediction for final: Wawrinka over Nadal.
Tricky road for Serena: Two-time defending champion Serena Williams will play her first match of the season on red clay against a qualifier, but given the strength of the qualifying field -- which includes Caroline Garcia, Donna Vekic, Belinda Bencic and her Family Circle Cup conqueror, Jana Cepelova -- that might not be the best news for her. Qualifiers will have had a few matches to get used to the tricky conditions in Madrid's altitude. She also could face clay-court specialist Carla Suarez Navarro, the always dangerous Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep just to make the final. Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic are also in her half.
Li Na and Maria Sharapova in the same quarter: Li pulled out of last week's Porsche Grand Prix to rest her knee, making Madrid her first clay tournament of the season. The No. 2 seed will have to be on her game from her first match. She opens against Kirsten Flipkens and could play Sloane Stephens in the third round and Sharapova in the quarterfinals.
Li is the last player not named Serena Williams to beat Sharapova on clay, defeating her at the 2011 French Open en route to the title. Since then, Li is 0-2 against the Russian on clay. The reigning Australian Open champion's best Slam performances tend to follow a good run of form in the lead-up events, so her results in Madrid and Rome could tell the tale in Paris. (The year she won the French Open, in 2011, Li had a career-best semifinal appearance in Madrid.) As for Sharapova, it's very hard to argue with her 40-3 record on clay since 2012.
Get ready for a blockbuster third round: If the rankings hold through the first two rounds, the third round will feature some intriguing matches. Ivanovic and Jankovic could meet on clay for the second time in three weeks (Ivanovic won in Stuttgart, Germany); Sharapova could face Dominika Cibulkova; Kvitova could play Flavia Pennetta; German Davis Cup teammates Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic could clash; and Li could get Stephens.
First-round matches to watch: Eugenie Bouchard vs. Agnieszka Radwanska; Caroline Wozniacki vs. Ekaterina Makarova; Ana Ivanovic vs. Madison Keys; Alize Cornet vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova; Flavia Pennetta vs. Lucie Safarova; Petra Kvitova vs. Sorana Cirstea; Jelena Jankovic vs. Elina Svitolina; Andrea Petkovic vs. Sara Errani; Sam Stosur vs. Dominika Cibulkova.
Potential second-round matches to watch: Alize Cornet/Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Eugenie Bouchard/Agnieszka Radwanska; Maria Sharapova vs. Christina McHale/Lauren Davis.Prediction for final: Sharapova over Halep.