If sound and fury is what look for in your tennis tournaments, you might be disappointed in what you see and hear at this year's Madrid Masters. Last season Ion Tiriac's blue-clay experiment made this the most talked-about event of 2012. It also sent both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal slipping and sliding—red-faced—out of the draw early. Both men promised boycotts if those courts were brought back, which is one big reason we’ve returned to traditional red dirt in 2013. With the blue should go the hue—and cry—of 2012.
The early word is that the surface playing more slowly than it has here in the past, though everything’s a little quicker in general in the Madrid altitude. Many of us will miss the groovy look of blue in photographs from the tournament this year, but it should be better preparation for Roland Garros, and a better predictor of success there, than it was last year.
The men’s draw is out, and almost all of the players who matter are present and accounted for—one exception is Juan Martin del Potro, who withdrew today with a viral infection. Too bad; the big man has won just one match since his run to the final at Indian Wells in March. Let’s see what the rest of his colleagues have ahead of them next week.
Novak Djokovic should start his Madrid campaign in a better head space than he did last year. In 2012, he had lost his grandfather, and a final to Rafael Nadal, while he was in Monte Carlo, and he distrusted the blue clay from the start. This time he comes to Spain with a win over Rafa in Monte Carlo, and with the knowledge that the last time the tournament was held on red clay, in 2011, he straight-setted Nadal in the final. Djokovic has to feel like his ultimate goal, Roland Garros, is in his grasp, and that he can take a step toward it with another title in Madrid.
Novak will have to be ready to go right away; he doesn’t have an easy quarter. He could open against Grigor Dimitrov, the Bulgarian who took a set from Nadal in Monte Carlo and served for the first set against Djokovic in Indian Wells. After that, he could play Stan Wawrinka, the man who rolled over Andy Murray in Monte Carlo and nearly did the same to Djokovic in their classic fourth-rounder in Melbourne in January. In the quarters, Djokovic might see the winner between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic. The Canadian nearly beat Roger Federer here in 2012.
First-round match to watch: Raonic vs. Nikolay Davydenko
Andy Murray, recently bumped down from No. 2 to No. 3, lands on Djokovic’s side. Since his early exit to Wawrinka two weeks ago, he says he has been grinding away with coach Ivan Lendl on clay, working on hitting with more weight and sliding with more skill. “It’s almost a different sport” from hard-court tennis, says Lendl, and he has Muzz learning his dirtball moves all over again. Murray has had some success here in the past—quarterfinal appearances in 2009 and 2010—and I’d expect a decent run this time. He'll start with the winner between Thomaz Bellucci and Florian Mayer.
Murray might not like the name he sees on the other side of this section: “T. Berdych.” The two are 4-4 against each other, but Berdych has won their only two matches on clay, and he reached the final in Madrid last year. Berdych will start with the winner between one tree, Jerzy Janowicz, and another, Sam Querrey.
Tough first-round matchup: Tipsarevic vs. Monaco
Being the No. 4 seed means you avoid the Big 4 until the semis, right? Not in David Ferrer’s case. Who does he get stuck with in the quarterfinals? A man he hasn’t beaten on clay in nine years, Rafael Nadal. Maybe the self-effacing Ferru—you might call him a Humble Man’s Humble Man—wanted it that way all along. If he does play Rafa in the quarterfinals, there might more than just a semifinal spot on the line. Nadal, who lost in the third round here last year, could make up some ground on Ferrer in their race for the fourth seeding at Roland Garros. (Ferrer is currently about 1,000 points ahead; that’s how many the champion will earn in Madrid.)
Ferrer could play Denis Istomin in his opener, and after that Tommy Haas. Nadal might get Benoit Paire to start, and then Nicolas Almagro. This has been Rafa’s weakest clay Masters by far; he won it once when it was in Hamburg, and once in Madrid, and has lost finals to both Federer and Djokovic here. Nadal has never liked playing at altitude so close to the French Open, but at least he won’t have to see blue stains on his clothes this year. Rafa hasn’t been dominant yet this spring; because of that I think Madrid will mean more to him and his ramp-up to Paris than it has in the past.
Perhaps the most intriguing event of the first few days will be the re-emergence of Roger Federer. He hasn’t played for close to two months; presumably the back injury he brought with him to Indian Wells has healed in that time. Let’s hope so, and that he can shake any rust off quickly, because he’s defending champion’s points in Madrid (he's also currently No. 10 in the ATP's Race to London). Last year Federer almost went out in the opening round to Raonic, before going on to win his first clay title in three years.
This time Federer will open against the winner between Bernard Tomic and Radek Stepanek, and could face Kei Nishikori in the next round. Richard Gasquet is the highest seed on the other side. Also here: Marin Cilic and John Isner, who will try to improve on his European misadventures of 2012, which began in Madrid.
Will Federer have the blues without the blue courts? It’s worth remembering that he has also played well on the red stuff here. He beat Nadal in the 2009 final and hasn’t lost before the semis at the Caja Magica. Like last season, when he was also returning from a lay-off, he may have to survive an early scare to make it that far again. His draw should help.
First-round match to watch: Tomic vs. Stepanek. Good hands, strange guys.
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Murray; Nadal d. Federer
Final: Djokovic d. Nadal