Let’s start with who is not in Madrid this year: Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, to name the two most famous absentees, followed by David Goffin, Gael Monfils, Milos Raonic, and Stan Wawrinka. Some are injured, some may not be enticed by the smaller prize-money purse, and some, like Djokovic and Federer, have bigger tournaments ahead.
Yet looking at this 56-player draw, it’s hard to find many weak spots. And we do get one important, half-forgotten figure back: Dominic Thiem. Here’s a look at what lies ahead for the No. 3 seed, and everyone else, at the clay season’s second Masters 1000.
Rafael Nadal is the favorite in every clay-court tournament he enters, but he’s not always, or even often, the top seed. Which seems to suit his fight-for-everything-I-get mentality just fine. But with Djokovic’s withdrawal, Rafa must bite the bullet and take over the top spot. It’s left him with a potentially interesting draw. He’ll start against Adrian Mannarino or the young Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz; the first seed he could play is his training partner Jannik Sinner in the round of 16; and his quarterfinal opponent might be No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev.
Nadal seemed to turn a corner in his clay preparation last week, but he’s never a lock in Madrid the way he is in other places at this time of year. Since the tournament moved to clay in 2009, he’s “only” won it four times. The last time he played it, in 2019, he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals. How will Rafa react to Djokovic’s absence? It seems to me like it may free him up to simply play his tennis and let the chips fall where they may. That’s usually a winning proposition for him on this surface.
First-round match to watch: Karen Khachanov vs. Kei Nishikori. The winner plays Zverev.
Not long ago, Dominic Thiem was the heir to Nadal’s clay-court throne, and, as hard as it may be to believe right now, he’s still the reigning US Open champion. But he’s just 5-4 in 2021, he hasn’t played since Dubai in February, he hasn’t been the same since his five-set win over Nick Kyrgios, and he has been complaining of knee pain.
But Thiem still has time to gather himself before the Grand Slam season begins. Madrid, where he’s a two-time finalist, would seem to be as good as place as any for him to reboot his season. His early rounds look promising. He’ll open against a qualifier, and the highest seed in his half is Grigor Dimitrov. The quarterfinals could be more interesting: There Thiem could face a younger guy who has been going in a much better direction, Andrey Rublev. Would a win by the Russian over the Austrian mean that Rublev had passed Thiem in the ATP’s heir-apparent sweepstakes?
How serious is the Tsitsipas surge? Is he a Roland Garros contender now, or is he destined to run out of steam on the road to Paris, the way other temporary contenders to Nadal’s clay throne have in the past? Either way, he has played some of the best tennis of his career over the last three weeks, and he’s coming to a place where, in 2019, he beat Rafa in the semis before losing to Djokovic in the final.
Tsitsipas’s path back to the semis looks about as smooth as he could ask for. He’ll start against either Nikoloz Basilashvili or Benoit Paire; the first seed he could face is Felix Auger-Aliassime, who he beat in straight sets last week in Barcelona; and if form holds his quarterfinal opponent will be Diego Schwartzman.
First-round matches to watch:
Auger-Aliassime vs. Casper Ruud
Denis Shapovalov vs. Dusan Lajovic
Marton Fucsovics vs. Alexander Bublik
Daniil Medvedev will make his first appearance since contracting the coronavirus in Monte Carlo three weeks ago. Instead of being seeded ahead of Nadal, as he was at that event, he’s back where even he would admit he belongs—No. 2 to Rafa’s No. 1. The Russian will try once again to make some inroads on clay. You might think the quicker stuff in Madrid would help him, but the last time Medvedev played here, he went out in the first round to Guido Pella. This time he could face early tests from Alexander Fokina Davidovich and Cristian Garin, and a tough quarterfinal against, potentially, Matteo Berrettini or Pablo Carreño Busta. Last week the Italian won the title in Belgrade, and the Spaniard reached the semis in Barcelona.
Semifinals: Nadal d. Rublev; Tsitsipas d. Berrettini