The second clay Masters 1000 event of the season begins today in Madrid as players continue to gear up for the French Open.
The top eight seeds have received first-round byes but there will be no shortage of action at the Caja Magica on opening day as No. 14 seed Tomas Berdych takes on French former top-tenner Richard Gasquet in a marquee round one on Estadio Manolo Santana (not before 16:30 Dubai time on beIN Sports).
Rafael Nadal is the defending champion and top seed in the Spanish capital and will be looking to add a sixth Madrid trophy to his CV.
Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Nick Kyrgios are all high-profile absentees while Novak Djokovic is seeded No. 10 at the tournament and will be looking to recapture the magic that saw him win the Madrid title in 2011 and 2016.
Here are the main talking points surrounding the men’s draw in Spain…
CAN NADAL KEEP HIS SWEEP CHANCES ALIVE?
Nadal enters Madrid flying high on a 19-match winning streak on clay dating back to last year’s French Open. He has also won his last 46 consecutive sets on the red dirt and seems untouchable on the surface despite struggling with a hip problem from January to April.
His dominance poses the question of whether he can pull off a sweep of all Masters 1000 tournaments – Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome – this clay season. The only time Nadal has managed to bulldoze through all three events was in 2010. He has won two of the three in eight different seasons, including last year.
Will 2018 be the year Nadal manages to pull off the clay Masters sweep once again? The way he’s been playing, having already won an 11th Monte Carlo crown and an 11 Barcelona trophy in the past few weeks, it’s looking more and more likely.
— Mutua Madrid Open (@MutuaMadridOpen) May 5, 2018
CAN ANYONE END THE BIG FOUR STRONGHOLD ON MADRID?
This year witnesses the 10th anniversary of the Caja Magica, the venue that has been hosting the Madrid Open since it switched from indoor hard court to clay back in 2009. Since the tournament migrated within the Spanish capital, the title has been exclusive to a member of the ‘Big Four’ – Nadal, Federer, Murray or Djokovic. No non-Big Four player has tasted success at the Caja Magica. Will someone finally loosen their grasp on the Madrid trophy?
IS DJOKOVIC’S DRAW A BLESSING IN DISGUISE?
Djokovic was dealt a tough hand, having to face Monte Carlo runner-up Kei Nishikori in the opening round. His path will not get any easier should he advance with the likes of Chung Hyeon, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov, Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic all lurking in his quarter of the draw.
It may seem like a nightmare situation but it could be just what the doctor ordered for Djokovic. This is the kind of draw he needs to be able to navigate in order to regain his confidence. Just think of the boost he would get if he takes care of Nishikori in the opening round. What out for the Serb this week!
WILL DEL POTRO COME BACK WITH A BANG?
We haven’t seen him in nearly five weeks but before he took a break, Juan Martin del Potro won 15 matches in a row, claiming titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells before falling in the Miami semi-finals. There were question marks on whether he would compete on clay at all this season but the Argentine has made it to Madrid, where he is seeded No. 4, and will kick off his clay swing at the Caja Magica.
His record at the tournament is 14-6 (best result is making semis in 2012) and this is his first appearance here since 2016 (lost to Jack Sock in the second round).
Del Potro is playing doubles with Dominic Thiem this week as well, in attempt to find his footing on clay. And while the red dirt doesn’t seem like Del Potro’s favourite surface, it’s worth noting that he has a 71 per cent winning record on clay – the seventh-highest among active players.
— Juan M. del Potro (@delpotrojuan) May 5, 2018
Serena, who returned to the tour from maternity leave in March by making the Indian Wells third round and losing her opener in Miami, has been training for the clay season at her coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy in the south of France but withdrew from this week’s Madrid Open, throwing her Roland Garros participation in doubt.
But Venus says Serena is on track to make a return to action, for the first time since Miami, in Rome next week.
“I think she’s looking forward to hopefully playing in Rome… I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any reason why she can’t continue and hopefully be able to play Rome and the French Open,” Venus said at the Caja Magica ahead of her Madrid opening round against Anett Kontaveit.
Venus will be playing her first match since her quarter-final exit in Miami in March and is appearing in Madrid for the first time since 2015.
The 37-year-old is seeded No. 8 in the draw and plays Kontaveit on Saturday.
“I want to do well. I haven’t played in a month, more. So I just have to see how it goes and try to learn every match,” said Venus, who was runner-up at the Caja Magica in 2010.
She is hoping to get over any rustiness quickly in order to go far in the tournament.
“I hope pretty fast. Sometimes you have bad luck and somebody plays too well and you’re not at your best but for the most part you hope that you have some chances to get into the match and get into the tournament,” she added.
“I found the courts here to be completely different than when I came here last a few years ago for the better actually, different for the better. They actually look and feel like French Open courts in a lot of ways whereas before it felt more like Har-Tru.”
Novak Djokovic’s search for a first title since Eastbourne last June just got tougher as the Serb was handed a brutal opener in Madrid against former top-five player Kei Nishikori.
While Djokovic is 11-2 head-to-head against Nishikori, and has won his last 10 straight matches against him, the Japanese has been finding his form recently, and made the Monte Carlo final a couple of weeks ago.
Djokovic has played just 10 matches in 2018 and is 5-5 this season.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion has landed in a loaded quarter of the draw that also includes eighth-seeded David Goffin, South Korean Chung Hyeon, who ousted Djokovic from the Australian Open last January, Marrakech finalist Kyle Edmund, French No. 15 seed Lucas Pouille, talented Canadian Denis Shapovalov and third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov.
Should Djokovic get past Nishikori in round one, who faces either Edmund or Daniil Medvedev, who practiced with the Serb on Friday at the Caja Magica.
Defending champion and top seed Rafael Nadal has a bye in the first round and will begin his assault on a sixth Madrid trophy against either Frenchman Gael Monfils or a qualifier.
Nadal, who is on a 19-match winning streak on clay and has claimed his last 46 consecutive sets on the surface, will be looking to add the Madrid crown to the Monte Carlo and Barcelona ones he clinched last month.
The Spaniard is seeded to potentially face fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals, in what would be a rematch of last year’s Madrid final.
Sharing the same half of the draw are fourth-seeded Juan Martin del Potro and sixth-seeded Kevin Anderson.
Djokovic’s potential path:
F: Nadal/Del Potro
Other notable first rounds:
Pablo Carreno-Busta (ESP x9) v Borna Coric
Richard Gasquet (FRA) v Tomas Berdych (CZE x14)
Lucas Pouille (FRA x15) v Benoit Paire (FRA)