This past week, before Serena Williams pulled out of Madrid, I wondered whether it was time to start worrying about her form as the French Open approaches. Now I'll ask the same question of the world’s other No. 1: Does Novak Djokovic, after being so dominant for so long, suddenly have reason for concern? Not only did he lose the only match he’s played so far during this clay season, in Monte Carlo, but since that defeat to Jiri Vesely, Djokovic has had to sit idly by and watch his old rival, Rafael Nadal, do nothing but win.

Will Rafa’s return shake Djokovic’s seemingly unshakable confidence? Or is this challenge just what he needs to focus his efforts as he enters the four most nerve-wracking weeks of his season? Sometimes, as Djokovic found out in Paris last year, it’s better not to go into a tournament as the overwhelming favorite. One thing is for certain: Djokovic once entertained the idea of repeating his schedule from the last two years and skipping this week’s Masters event in Madrid. Not anymore; he could use a win or two.

Here’s a look ahead at how Djokovic, Nadal and the rest of the field may fare at the clay swing’s first mandatory event.

In the past, Madrid has been Djokovic’s least-favorite Roland Garros tune-up. He’s reached the final just once—when he won the event in 2011—and hasn’t entered the tournament since 2013, when he was upset in the second round by Grigor Dimitrov. And he didn't think much of Ion Tiriac's ill-fated experiment with blue clay in 2012.

But there’s no reason why Djokovic can’t do well on the red stuff here; it plays more like a hard court than any other version of dirt. In the 2011 final, Djokovic silenced the Spanish crowd by handing Nadal what was then an exceedingly rare loss on clay.

There’s also no reason why Djokovic can’t succeed with his draw this year. He’ll open against either Nicolas Almagro or Borna Coric, and is projected to play Roberto Bautista Agut, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and either Stan Wawrinka or Kei Nishikori before the final. Murray, Federer and, most important, Nadal, are all in the opposite half.

Also here: Milos Raonic

First-round match to watch: Almagro vs. Coric

Semifinalist: Djokovic


What, Djokovic Worry?

What, Djokovic Worry?

Wawrinka and Nishikori headline this section, which means your guess is as good as mine as to how it turns out. Wawrinka remains the game’s great enigma. His form can change with the wind, and it has tended to do just that in Madrid; a finalist at the Caja Magica in 2013, Stan has won just one match there since. This year Wawrinka will face either Nick Kyrgios or Guido Pella in his opener; we know which of those two match-ups the tennis world is dying to see.

As for Nishikori, just when he looks ready to do something big at a Masters event, he doesn’t. But Madrid, which rewards his shotmaker’s aggression more than any other clay tournament, has been the site of his biggest successes at that level so far. Nishikori reached the final in 2014, and backed it up with a semifinal run last year. This time he’ll start against either Fabio Fognini or Bernard Tomic.

As for a possible Wawrinka-Nishikori quarterfinal, Stan leads their head to head 3-1.

Also here: Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet

Potential second-round match to watch: Wawrinka vs. Kyrgios

Semifinalist: Nishikori

Could Nadal have his latest clay-court streak derailed by...Roger Federer, of all people? Rog beat Rafa in the Madrid final in 2009, and won the event again on blue clay three years later. This time they’re scheduled to face off in the quarterfinals, but it may not be easy for Federer to keep that date. If things go as planned, he’ll face Dominic Thiem in the round of 16. As for Rafa, he’ll start against either Viktor Troicki or Andrey Kuznetsov, and will likely play David Goffin after that. Nadal has won this clay event “only” three times, which must really make him mad.

First-round matches to watch:

Thiem vs. Juan Martin del Potro

Jack Sock vs. Benoit Paire

Semifinalist: Nadal


What, Djokovic Worry?

What, Djokovic Worry?

With Djokovic the clear No. 1 and Nadal in the midst of his traditional spring surge, it’s hard to remember that Murray is the guy who is defending a title in Madrid. But while the world No. 2 has had a disappointing couple of months, he did show off his much-improved clay skills in Monte Carlo, where he pushed Nadal to the limit in the semis.

In Madrid, Murray will start against either Vasek Pospisil or a qualifier, and is forecast to face Gilles Simon and then Tomas Berdych to make the semis. That’s not exactly a murderer’s row of opponents. But while Berdych has lost his last three matches to Murray, he has reached the Madrid final once (on blue dirt), and the semis twice.

Also here: Grigor Dimitrov

Semifinalist: Murray

Semifinals: Djokovic d. Nishikori; Nadal d. Murray

Final: Djokovic d. Nadal