We know the identity of the No. 1 men’s player in the world, and, barring some unforeseen developments over the next two weeks, who the favorite for the French Open will be. In both cases, it’s Novak Djokovic. That won’t change this week in Madrid, as Djokovic seems to have realized. He’s chosen to skip one of the year’s biggest events so he doesn’t wear himself down on the long road to Paris. It’s hard to blame him. Djokovic knows what his ultimate goal is: A first French Open title. He missed Madrid last year with an injury, so he has no points to defend. And there’s still time for him to prepare next week in Rome, where he is defending points—1,000 of them.
That means Madrid will essentially be a race for second place (see the draw here). Which takes nothing away from its importance; whoever comes away with the title, or a significant gain in confidence, will be in a propitious position going forward.
With Djokovic out, it’s a little like old times at the top of the Madrid draw. Roger Federer is the No. 1 seed, a position he hasn’t held at the Caja Magica since 2010. Federer is currently playing, and struggling a bit, in Istanbul. On Friday he lost a set to Daniel Gimeno-Traver before advancing to the semis; today he lost a set to Diego Schwartzman before advancing to the final. But Federer likes the quicker ball speed in Madrid. He won there in 2006, 2009, and 2012—will the three-year pattern hold again? He could see a lot of big serves to start. If Nick Kyrgios wins his opener, he’ll play Federer in the second round. If Federer wins that one, John Isner could be next.
Tomas Berdych is the top seed on the other side here. Is he due for a breakthrough? Only for about 10 years now—he won his last, and only, Masters event in 2005. But Madrid will offer him another chance. He reached the final here (on blue clay) in 2012, and he reached the Monte Carlo final last month in. Plus, his draw looks favorable. The Berd will start against either Richard Gasquet or Ivo Karlovic, and might get a recovering Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after that.
First-round match to watch: Houston champ Jack Sock vs. Barcelona runner-up Pablo Andujar
Possible second-round match to watch: Federer vs. Kyrgios
While Federer’s spot in the draw brings back memories, Rafael Nadal’s seems stranger than ever. Even without Djokovic around, Nadal, the two-time defending champion, is seeded No. 3 and has been dropped into Federer’s half. Not that it really matters; wherever Rafa is this week, questions will swirl around him as he tries to re-crown himself the King of Clay. I’d say Djokovic’s absence should help; the Serb makes Nadal worry like no other player on dirt.
Rafa’s draw won’t hurt him, either. He’ll open against either Steve Johnson or a qualifier, and is scheduled to play Kevin Anderson in the following round. Stan Wawrinka is the top seed in the other half; the Swiss reached the final here two years ago, but he’s been struggling of late, on court and off.
Also here: Grigor Dimitrov. He had a breakout win over Djokovic in Madrid two years ago.
Here they (might) go again. Kei Nishikori and David Ferrer have gotten to know each other well over the last year; they’ve played six times since the start of 2014. Nishikori won the first five, including a classic three-setter in Madrid, and he seemed to have left the 33-year-old Spaniard permanently in his rear-view mirror when he straight-setted him at the Australian Open in January. But Ferrer stuck around, as he tends to do, and turned the tables in Acapulco the following month.
If Kei and Ferru do face off in the quarters, it will be a match with ramifications—both guys are among the second tier of contenders for the French Open, and a strong showing in Madrid could make a strong showing in Paris seem that much more likely.
Will Kei and Ferru arrive safely for a showdown this Friday? Each has a draw that should permit it. Ferrer starts against either Tommy Robredo or Pablo Cuevas; the highest seed in his half is Marin Cilic. Nishikori will start against either David Goffin or Ernests Gulbis; the highest seed in his half is Roberto Bautista Agut.
First-round match to watch: Goffin vs. Gulbis. Is it worth mentioning that Gulbis, who has begun the season 1-9, is a two-time quarterfinalist in Madrid? Probably not.
Sleeper: Bautista Agut. The Spaniard hasn't had a big year, but he made the semis in Madrid in 2014, and he took Nishikori to three sets in Barcelona last week.
Andy Murray, oddly enough, is the No. 2 seed. But that doesn't mean you really expect to see him in the final here, does it? As of Friday, the recently married Murray had played, and won, exactly one match on clay since last year’s French Open. Rain in Munich forced him to play, and win, two more on Saturday.
If Murray can find his clay feet in time, though, he could go places in Madrid. The highest seed in his half of this section is the perennially unpredictable Gael Monfils; the highest seed in the other half is the recently injured Milos Raonic.
Even More of a Question Mark Than Usual: Monfils. He made the semis in Monte Carlo, and he has an decent opportunity to do the same in Madrid. But he hasn’t played here since 2012. Plus, he's La Monf.