Just over three weeks now remain ahead of the second Grand Slam of the tennis year, the French Open, and all eyes will be on Madrid next week, when all of the leading contenders will be in action.
While another Masters 1000 event immediately follows in Rome, the Madrid Open is scheduled to be the only clay-court event ahead of Roland Garros where the “Big Four,” as well as French Open champion Stan Wawrinka, will be together in the draw. With the pecking order currently far from set, the prestigious Masters 1000 event in the Spanish capital promises to provide plenty of clues as to what could unfold in Paris next month.
Here's a look at the top players' outlook ahead of the tournament.
Surely the biggest question is whether Nadal can continue the dramatic upturn in form he displayed in beginning the clay-court season by winning titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He will have the home crowd behind him as he seeks his fifth Madrid title, but the real prize for the 29-year-old is returning to glory at Roland Garros.
Many had written Nadal off from ever returning to Grand-Slam winning shape after a slump that started with an injury-ravaged end to 2014. But having beaten Andy Murray, Wawrinka and world No. 6 Kei Nishikori in the last couple of weeks, along with winning his first Masters 1000 title in close to two years, he has re-emerged as a serious contender to add to his record nine French Open titles.
What Nadal hasn’t done yet, though, is beat Djokovic. The Serb has come out on top in their last six meetings, all in straight sets, including when ending Nadal’s dominance at last year’s French Open at the quarterfinal stage.
Even though Djokovic went on to lose in the final to Wawrinka, until a couple of weeks ago, the world No. 1 appeared a prohibitive favorite to finally complete a Career Grand Slam in Paris. But, along with Nadal’s return to form, Djokovic also began the clay-court season by suffering his first loss of the year in a completed match to world No. 55 Jiri Vesely.
It may well be just a blip, but Djokovic will want to quickly return to form in Madrid. To do so he will have to improve on a recent record that has seen him miss the tournament the last two years and go out in the quarterfinals in his two visits before that.
In 2011, though, Djokovic did beat Nadal in the final—the same fate the Spaniard suffered at the hands of Murray 12 months ago. For Murray, that title proved a major breakthrough on what had previously been by far his least successful surface. The Briton went on to reach the semifinals at the French Open, losing in a five-set thriller to Djokovic.
And, while he has not been at his best since the Australian Open, he showed in winning the first set against Nadal in Monte Carlo that he can be a threat for anybody on clay.
As for the final member of the Big Four, there are plenty of question marks. When he announced his schedule at the start of the year, Federer wasn’t set to play any clay-court tournaments in the lead up to the French Open. It suggested that his focus lay firmly on a packed summer, taking in Wimbledon, the Rio Olympics and the U.S. Open—all events where the Swiss will consider he has a far greater chance of success than at his least successful Grand Slam, Roland Garros.
But knee surgery following the Australian Open altered his plans. Needing matches under his belt, he took a late entry into Monte Carlo, a decision which proved moderately successful with a quarterfinal exit to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Still, it was confirmed on Thursday that he will also be heading to Madrid. And, although the 17-time Grand Slam champion’s comments suggest he is far from over-confident about his prospects in Paris, the fact that missed a large chunk of the early season could allow the 34-year-old to put greater emphasis on adding to the sole title he won in 2009.
Fellow Swiss Wawrinka accounted for Federer in the French Open quarterfinals a year ago, but he could certainly do with finding some form in Madrid ahead of beginning the defense of his second Grand Slam title. The world No. 4 has scored just one win over a player currently ranked in the top 20 this year, and he was swept aside in Monte Carlo by Nadal. His recent record in Madrid is far from impressive, either, having won just a single match on his last two visits.