Preparation for the French Open gets going in earnest as May begins. The ATP and WTA are set to play the two biggest clay tournaments ahead of Paris, beginning this weekend at the Madrid Open. Roger Federer and Victoria Azarenka are back on tour after extended breaks, and a number of important rankings scenarios are in play for both the men and women.
Here are key questions for Madrid:
1. Can No. 5 Rafael Nadal make a run at No. 4 David Ferrer? Nadal lost in the third round to Fernando Verdasco in Madrid last year. That means he can pick up 910 points if he wins Madrid, his toughest of all the clay events. Since the tournament moved from indoor hard courts to clay in 2009, Nadal has won it once (2010) and lost in the final to Federer (2009) and Novak Djokovic (2011). This is Nadal's opportunity to close the gap significantly on the No. 4 ranking, which he trails by 935 points. A Nadal win combined with an early loss by Ferrer, and he could take No. 4 outright heading into Rome.
2. Can Novak Djokovic replicate his Monte Carlo stunner? A win here, and the debate over who is the Roland Garros favorite gets heated. Djokovic has a tough road to the final. His potential path could include an opener against Grigor Dimitrov, who took a set off Nadal in Monte Carlo; Stanislas Wawrinka, he of their memorable five-set epic in Australia; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Milos Raonic; and Andy Murray or Tomas Berdych. If he can navigate that draw (to a potential Nadal final) and lift his second Madrid title, he'll give Nadal a lot to think about heading into Paris.
3. Will we see Federer vs. Nadal XXX? The prospect of the second Fedal match of the year looms large with Nadal drawn into Federer's half and Ferrer's quarter. The big question is Federer. He hasn't played since losing to Nadal in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells in March. Federer was clearly hampered by a back injury in that straight-set defeat. The two haven't met on clay since the 2011 French Open final, which Nadal won. Federer is 2-12 against Nadal on clay, but one of those wins did come in Madrid in the 2009 final. Assuming the Swiss is in good form, I like his path to the semifinals. He could play a slumping Bernard Tomic in the second round and then Kei Nishikori and Richard Gasquet.
4. Can Federer hold off Andy Murray for the No. 2 ranking? The two are separated by 100 points. The difference between going into the French Open ranked No. 2 versus No. 3 is that the No. 2 seed will obviously avoid a potential match with Djokovic until the final. It's likely that Murray will come out of Madrid ranked No. 2 (he skipped the tournament last year while Federer is the defending champion). He just needs to win a few matches or hope that Federer fails to defend his title. Either way, this is a rankings race to keep an eye on over the next two weeks.
5. Can anyone spoil the party? Maybe not for the favorites, but a number of top players, including Murray, have yet to make a statement on the clay this year. Berdych lost to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo and Tommy Robredo in Barcelona. Ferrer was stunned by Dmitry Tursunov in the first round of Barcelona. Other seeds to track are Raonic and Gasquet, both on the upswing.
Final Prediction: Djokovic d. Nadal.
Notable early-round matches:
First round: David Goffin vs. Fernando Verdasco; Sam Querrey vs. Jerzy Janowicz; Fabio Fognini vs. Mikhail Youzhny; Andreas Seppi vs. Tommy Haas; Kei Nishikori vs. Jurgen Melzer; Bernard Tomic vs. Radek Stepanek.
Potential second round: Novak Djokovic vs. Grigor Dimitrov; Roger Federer vs. Bernard Tomic; Janowicz/Querrey vs. Tomas Berdych.
Potential third round: Novak Djokovic vs. Stanislas Wawrinka; Milos Raonic vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; Tommy Haas vs. David Ferrer.
The full slate of top women is in the field for the first time on clay this season. Madrid sees the return of No. 3 Azarenka and No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska (it helps that this is a mandatory event).
1. Who will come out No. 1? Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will battle for the No. 1 ranking. Sharapova needs to go deeper than Williams to capture the top spot. Here's a handy chart of the scenarios, courtesy of WTA stats czar Kevin Fisher:
2. Can anyone stop Serena and Maria? The top two players have won the two biggest clay tournaments so far, both successfully defending their titles in Charleston (Williams) and Stuttgart (Sharapova). Last year in Madrid, Williams beat both Sharapova and Azarenka en route to the title on blue clay. When you want to talk about current dominance on clay, the conversation begins and ends here. Over the last two years, Williams is 22-1 on the surface, that one loss being her disastrous first-round exit at last year's French Open. Sharapova has a 23-1 record. That one loss was to Williams in Madrid. They might not be considered clay-court specialists, though Sharapova might as well be, given six of her last eight titles have been on clay.
3. How quickly can Azarenka shake off the rust? It's been more than a month and a half since Azarenka has played, having withdrawn from Indian Wells with an ankle injury and then skipping her next two tournaments, in Miami and Monterrey. The Australian Open champion is still undefeated this season (17-0), though she withdrew before a semifinal against Williams in Brisbane and a quarterfinal against Caroline Wozniacki in Indian Wells. Clay is her weakest surface, but Azarenka showed great improvement last year, making back-to-back finals in Stuttgart and Madrid before -- surprise -- withdrawing mid-tournament in Rome.
Azarenka, drawn into Williams' half, must find her top gear early. She gets Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round and has a potential second-round match against Lucie Safarova. Pavlyuchenkova has rediscovered her form since bringing Martina Hingis on as her coach, winning a title in Monterrey and making this weekend's final in Portugal.
4. Can Sloane Stephens break out of her slump? After a forgettable post-Australian Open run through the Middle East and the U.S., where she went 3-6, Stephens said she couldn't wait to get to Europe to escape the distractions of home. She loves the red clay, and now that she's out of the States she can return to playing her early matches on the outer courts where she says she feels more comfortable. She'll get a good test in the first round against Daniela Hantuchova, with a possible second-round match against Petra Kvitova looming.
5. Are Li Na, Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova and Jelena Jankovic pretenders or contenders? Outside of Williams, Sharapova and an in-form Azarenka, who are the best bets to go deep in Paris? Madrid will give us some indication, though I've always maintained that Rome is the far better indicator of Parisian success than the high-altitude conditions in Madrid. Li sent a strong message two weeks ago in making the Stuttgart final. She'll be tested in Madrid, potentially facing Venus Williams and Wozniacki before a potential quarterfinal with Serena.
Errani lands in Azarenka's quarter. I've grown more and more impressed with the Italian this year, and clay is her best surface. But Errani has to show she can knock off one of the top three. As for Kvitova and Jankovic, who knows? They've shown they can win on clay. It's just a matter of confidence. Jankovic is in a soft quarter anchored by Radwanska and Angelique Kerber, while Kvitova could face Sharapova in the quarterfinals.
Prediction: Serena d. Sharapova
Notable early-round matches:
First round: Victoria Azarenka vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova; Sloane Stephens vs. Daniela Hantuchova; Caroline Wozniacki vs. Yaroslava Shvedova; Venus Williams vs. Anabel Medina Garrigues; Samantha Stosur vs. Carla Suarez Navarro.
Potential second round: Ana Ivanovic vs. Jelena Jankovic; Sloane Stephens vs. Petra Kvitova; Victoria Azarenka vs. Lucie Safarova.