Cleaning Up the Dirt
Madrid tournament owner Ion Tiriac has never been short on ideas. Some, like creating a dual-gender clay-court event in Spain’s capital, are far-seeing. Others, like playing that tournament on sky-blue dirt, may someday be recognized as ahead of their time. Still others, like using florescent balls, are flat-out hare-brained—or in his case, beard-brained.
One of the Vampiric One’s other favorite concepts is the small draw. Tiriac has always said that 32 players are the ideal number for a pro tournament, if it wants to deliver competitive matches from start to finish. In Madrid, though, he must be torn. Tiriac would like his event to be the fifth Grand Slam, and he’s pushed to make it longer.
For the moment, we’ve reached an appealing mid-point at the Caja Magica. The tournament has a 64-player draw, with no byes, on the women’s side, and a 64-player draw, with eight byes, on the men’s. If you’re going to extend your event to nine days—women’s main-draw matches begin on Saturday—you should give the customers something decent to watch all the way through. Madrid does pretty well right now, but it would do better if it dropped the eight byes on the men's side and made everyone play the same number of matches.
Of course we must start with Rafael Nadal. His spring clay slide—and, yes, semifinal and quarterfinal losses at Monte Carlo and Barcelona qualifies as a slide for him—is the talk of the tours. Madrid would probably not be Rafa’s first choice as a place to right the ship, or to try to maintain his shaky hold on the No. 1 ranking. He didn’t like when the event, which is played at altitude, became the last tune-up before the French Open in 2009, and he really didn’t like it when the blue clay arrived in 2012. Not coincidentally, the tournament has since been moved in front of Rome in the schedule, and the clay is red again. Who says nobody listens to the players?
Yet Rafa has won at the Caja Magica twice, and last year it was his first clay Masters title, after his loss to Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo. Can the home fans help him again in 2014? His opening opponents likely won’t hurt him. Nadal will start against either Juan Monaco or Jurgen Melzer—the Argentine has suffered a couple of epic whippings from Rafa in recent years, while the Austrian owns one win in their four matches, on hard courts in Shanghai in 2010. After that, Nadal might face 14th seed Tommy Haas. In their five matches, Nadal hasn’t dropped a set, and none of those were on clay.
Also here: Tomas Berdych, Grigor Dimitrov
First-round match to watch: Dimitrov vs. Pablo Carreño Busta. The Bulgarian upset Djokovic in Madrid last year.
Shouldn’t getting back into the Top 4 keep you from having to play one of the Big 4 before the semifinals? Not in Roger Federer’s case; the fourth seed has landed in the same quarter as No. 7 Andy Murray.
Results-wise, Madrid is Federer’s favorite among the current clay Masters events. He won it in 2009 and 2012, and recorded one of his two wins on dirt over Nadal here. This year, he also comes in after a strong run to the Monte Carlo final. But Federer may not like what he sees early in the draw. He'll open against either Benoit Paire or Gilles Simon—the latter’s mix of pace and junk has troubled him in the past, and the two went five sets at the French Open last year.
The last time we saw Murray was a month ago, when Fabio Fognini was wiping the clay with him in Naples in Davis Cup—not the most auspicious way to begin your spring campaign on the Continent. It doesn’t look like it will get any easier for Murray in Madrid. A quarterfinalist here last year, he'll most likely start against Nadal-slayer Nicolas Almagro, and then Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Do we dare call Stanislas Wawrinka the favorite? He’s No. 1 in the Race to London and is coming off his first career Masters title, on clay in Monte Carlo. He also reached the Madrid final last year.
Stan is certainly the favorite in this quarter, where the second seed is Milos Raonic; the Canadian snuck into the No. 8 spot after Juan Martin del Potro’s withdrawal. Wawrinka with start against either Feliciano Lopez or Dmitry Tursunov, and then could face Mikhail Youzhny.
Sleeper: Kei Nishikori. He just won in Barcelona, and beat Federer here last year. He’s 1-0 against Raonic; 0-2 against Wawrinka.
Like the women’s draw, a lot of the heavyweights have landed in the bottom bracket. Djokovic is the heaviest of all, of course; if he wins the tournament, and Nadal fails to the reach the quarters, Novak will be No. 1 again. But the climb won’t be easy. He could play a second-round match against Marin Cilic, and a third-rounder against either Fognini, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Ernests Gulbis, or Jerzy Janowicz. And if he gets through that, Djokovic, who won this tournament in 2011 but went out in his opener last year, might be rewarded with a quarterfinal against David Ferrer.
Also here: No. 9 seed John Isner. He could face a nemesis, Philipp Kohlschreiber, to start.
First-round matches to watch:
—Fognini vs. Dolgopolov
—Gulbis vs. Janowicz
What could possibly go wrong in those?
Semifinals: Nadal d. Federer; Wawrinka d. Djokovic
Final: Nadal d. Wawrinka