Can anyone beat Rafael Nadal? That ship, for the moment, has passed. Instead, the first question that needs to be answered in Madrid is whether anyone can take a set from him—he’s won a record 46 straight on the surface dating back to the last May. The second question of interest this week will be: Who might emerge as the most likely player to reach the final at Roland Garros, and lose to Rafa?
To say that Madrid isn’t Nadal’s favorite clay-court event isn’t saying all that much; he’s the defending champion. But he hasn’t won it, like, 10 times. The altitude and the courts make the ball move a little faster in the Spanish capital, so it is theoretically possible for a hard-hitting opponent to get it past him here. Could anyone in this quarter do that often enough to threaten him? Nadal might open against Gael Monfils, which should be entertaining, even if the match isn’t competitive. In the quarters, Rafa could play the man he beat in the final here last year, Dominic Thiem. The Austrian is the last player to knock off Nadal on clay, in Rome last spring. Which may be why Rafa beat him so badly in Monte Carlo a few weeks ago.
First-round match to watch: Pablo Carreño Busta vs. Borna Coric
Match point from Nadal's win over Tsitsipas in Barcelona Open final:
If there’s a player who could, on the right day, place a speed bump in Nadal’s road to his 11th title at Roland Garros, it’s Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine has beaten Rafa at majors before, and he’s been to the semis in Paris before. He also played some of the best tennis of his career to win the title in Indian Wells this past March. Delpo makes his clay debut this week; can he do some immediate damage, or will it take a week for him to get settled? He should be pleased with his spot in the draw, anyway. The other three seeds in his quarter are Kevin Anderson, Roberto Bautista Agut, and Tomas Berdych. That seems like a path that Delpo can ease his way along.
Semifinalist: Del Potro
Match point from Del Potro's win over Federer in Indian Wells final:
What stage is Grigor Dimitrov in right now? So far in 2018, he’s already had a fast start in Australia, a nosedive in the States, and a resurgence on clay on Monte Carlo. Dimitrov is the No. 3 seed overall in Madrid, and the top seed in this section. But there’s competition.
David Goffin is the second seed; after a series of three-setters in Barcelona two weeks ago, the Belgian should finally have shaken off any post-injury rust. Lucas Pouille is also here: after positive results early this season, the Frenchman seems due for a Masters breakout. And then there’s Novak Djokovic. The Serb has had success in Madrid in the past, including a win over Nadal in the final. But if he was looking for an easy match or two to build his flagging confidence, he’s not going to get it here; Djokovic opens against a somehow-unseeded Kei Nishikori.
First-round matches to watch: Kyle Edmund vs. Daniil Medvedev; Denis Shapovalov vs. Tennys Sandgren; Djokovic vs. Nishikori
Match point from Klizan's win over Djokovic in Barcelona:
Is it a blessing or a curse to go deep the week before a Masters event? It depends on the player and the week, of course, but Alexander Zverev’s biggest win, in Montreal last summer, came the week after he won a smaller event in Washington, D.C. We’ll see if the pattern holds in Madrid, because Zverev will come there after reaching the final in Munich. He’ll have to make a quick turnaround: Waiting for him in the second round could be the latest NextGen hot shot, Stefanos Tsitsipas. Waiting for him in the quarterfinals might be the man who beat him in Miami, John Isner.
Semifinals: Nadal d. Del Potro; Zverev d. Nishikori
Final: Nadal d. Zverev