With the current struggles of key ATP stars, the Mutua Madrid Open men’s draw has thrown up some juicy early round collisions and some interesting paths. And while top seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal is yet to be troubled this clay-court season, history indicates that he may be slightly more vulnerable at home in Spain.
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Rafael Nadal  vs Dominic Thiem  (Nadal leads H2H 6-2)
His Mutua Madrid Open win last season was Rafael Nadal’s fifth at the tournament – which is a meagre haul for the Spaniard in comparison to his other great clay-court feats. Nevertheless, it was a routine run to the trophy for the King of Clay, and one of four titles claimed on the dirt in 2017.
Still, Nadal must be wary this week. Back to back event triumphs on clay so far this year have come in utterly straightforward fashion. But however easy he makes it look, Nadal is still expending mental and physical energy in continuing a streak of 46 straight sets won on dirt.
If an opening round can be difficult for the 31-year-old on dirt in 2018, then the Madrid Open has tried its best to manufacture one. Athletic and unpredictable Gael Monfils – Nadal’s opponent in the 2016 Monte Carlo Masters final – will likely be his first opponent this week. The often-injured Frenchman is not in his best form, and has lost 13 matches in total against the Spanish legend, but he has the flashy tennis to knock off anyone on his day.
Should Nadal come through that encounter, fellow Spaniards Feliciano Lopez and Pablo Andujar are potential foes – although this should not overly concern the 31-year-old, given his impeccable records against the vast majority of his countrymen. The defending champion would likely be more troubled by pint-sized 13th seed Diego Schwartzman – who had played his biggest matches on dirt prior to breaking through on hard-courts last season.
Dominic Thiem – 2017’s Prince of Clay, and last year’s Madrid Open finalist – will be ruing falling into Nadal’s quarter of the draw for a second straight Masters 1000 event. After a hard-fought three set win over Djokovic in Monte Carlo, the Austrian was drubbed 6-0 6-2 by eventual champion Nadal, and his fifth seeding has put him in danger of suffering another pounding from the Spaniard.
Still, two matches must be played before then, and Thiem’s safe passage is not as bankable as the ten-time French Open champion’s. After a first round bye, the struggling Mischa Zverev or a qualifier would be his first challenger.
Should Thiem reach the third round, unseeded Borna Coric poses the biggest threat of an upset. The 21-year-old lost to the fifth seed here last year, but is tied at one-all in their head-to-head. His intense attitude and consistent game – which has often been compared to that of Novak Djokovic – have already troubled Roger Federer and the Serb himself his season, with the latter match taking place on clay mere weeks ago. Coric would need to survive an opening clash with 9th seeded Barcelona resident Pablo Carreno Busta to have a crack at Thiem, with heavy-hitting Jan-Lennard Struff likely awaiting the winner of that showdown.
A loss in Madrid could come as a blessing in disguise for Rafael Nadal. Last season, the 16-time Slam champion fell to Thiem in the quarter-finals of Rome, and had a little extra rest ahead of seven best-of-five format matches at the French Open. But given Nadal’s current momentum, and the draw he has received, arguments that he may grow weary are unconvincing.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Rafael Nadal
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Juan Martin del Potro  vs Kevin Anderson  (Del Potro leads H2H 7-0)
A massive victory over Roger Federer in the Indian Wells final saw Juan Martin del Potro confirm that, in the currently shaky state of the ATP tour, he is truly a man that can capitalise. With one of the most fearsome forehands in the game, a major title to his name, and a resilience that he deserves far more credit for, del Potro’s subsequent run to the Miami Open semifinals was a further statement. The Argentine took time off to rest in the aftermath, so we have yet to see how well the big-hitter can transfer his form to a slower surface.
The 2009 US Open champion would be under pressure in the second round against seasoned pro Julien Benneteau. The Frenchman opens against world no. 32 Damir Dzhumhur – who netted some career-best results at the end of 2017.
The third round could well throw up an unfortunate meeting with Tomas Berdych, although this is probably a far more unfortunate occurrence for the Czech. Lack of success against the elite has seen Berdych slip down the rankings in recent months, and he trails his rivalry with del Potro by a narrow 5-4 margin. The Argentine has won both their previous meetings on clay, although one came via retirement right here in Madrid nine years ago.
Other candidates to face del Potro in round three include Richard Gasquet – the former world no. 7, who poses a serious first round threat to Berdych – and NextGen star Karen Khachanov.
On the other side of the quarter, it is fairly strange to see Kevin Anderson as the no. 6 seed. The South African giant played the best tennis of his career during the last few months of 2017 and the opening few months of the current season, but stumbled in the first round of last week’s Estoril Open as the top seed.
Anderson does not have it easy in his Madrid second round, with a probable opener against wild card Roberto Carballes Baena. No one has taken more games off Nadal in a singles clash this season than the 25-year-old Spaniard, who lost in a final set tiebreak to Stefanos Tsitsipas in last week’s Estoril Open quarter-finals. If Anderson survives that encounter, another Roberto – 11th seed Bautista Agut – would be a real threat in round three, with the ever-dangerous Philipp Kohlschreiber also in the mix to take him on.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Juan Martin del Potro
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Grigor Dimitrov  vs David Goffin  (Dimitrov leads H2H 7-1)
Grigor Dimitrov’s not-great, not-bad clay-court season thus far has seen the Bulgarian beaten by Spaniards only, but pushed by others. And in Madrid, an early challenge could be beckoning. Thanks to months duelling with injury, 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic is unseeded in Spain, and a second round collision with old rival Dimitrov is almost certainly on the cards. Including their clay-court Futures meeting in 2009, the duo have faced off five times – with Dimitrov triumphant on four of those occasions.
Those wins include their last three meetings, and should the third seed’s streak continue, any one of Dimitrov’s potential third round opponents could make him work hard. Lucas Pouille, seeded no. 15, is capable of an upset on any surface, while young gun Denis Shapovalov is never one to overlook. Tennys Sandgren, meanwhile, produced his best career run on clay-courts by reaching the Houston final in April, and hot and cold Beniot Paire – another national of the only country possessing a clay-court major – is tough to predict.
If Dimitrov makes the last eight, he will not be complaining at his projected opponent. Eighth seed David Goffin has lost seven of eight meeting with the Bulgarian, but may well not get the opportunity to face him. The Belgian has been up against it this year, beginning with his most recent clash with Dimitrov in Rotterdam. Back in February, Goffin was struck in the eye by a ball in a freak accident, and the 27-year-old only returned to tour for an opening round loss in Miami.
The clay-court season so far has been decent for Goffin, with Dimitrov and Nadal dishing him his only losses. But the world no. 10, who potentially opens against fast-rising Melbourne semifinalist Hyeon Chung, has landed in the most crowded section of the draw in Madrid.
In this bracket, all eyes will be on the blockbuster opening round clash between Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori: two long-time presences in the top ten, who have lately spent long periods of time battling injury. Both players have made great runs on clay in the past, with 2016 French Open champion Djokovic becoming masterful on the surface as he pursued that elusive Roland Garros crown. The Serb last won the Madrid Open two seasons ago, shortly before his two years of insane domination disintegrated into fatigue, injury, and a strange loss of confidence and mental toughness. While recent weeks have shown promising signs for Djokovic, these have been flashes rather than streaks, and a first round clash against Nishikori highlights his poor fortune in terms of draws. The Japanese star’s run to the Monte Carlo final, meanwhile, was his best display in some time, and he looks ready to take on Djokovic – with a tough clash against either NextGen’s Daniil Medvedev or the highly in-form Kyle Edmund awaiting the winner. It is safe to say that Goffin would be on dangerous ground against any of those four players.
Djokovic – now reunited with long-time coach Marian Vajda – could truly be on his way back now, but his first round loss in Barcelona casts doubt on this being his breakthrough week. With the draw he has, the 12-time major champion probably needs a little more time. That said, if he survives Nishikori, it could be the win the Serb needs to unlock several more. I largely expect the winner of that first round collision to be this quarter’s representative in the last four.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Kei Nishikori
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Alexander Zverev  vs John Isner  (Zverev leads H2H 3-1)
Two years ago, the sight of Alexander Zverev versus John Isner as a projected Masters 1000 quarter-final would have been a strange one. Both men have done their bit to take advantage of the current dips and rises of the ATP tour over the past year.
And Zverev – who possesses multiple Masters 1000 titles and a career-high ranking of world no. 3 at the age of 21 – had been making strides even before the usual rhythm of the tour was thrown into disarray. The future Grand Slam champion has a game that can make an impact on fast and slow surfaces, and will be playing with less pressure in Madrid than he will be in Rome next week: where he is required to defend 1,000 ranking points.
The German has played to his ranking so far this clay-court season. Zverev reached the semifinals in Monte-Carlo, losing a three setter to Nishikori, and is still in action in Munich at the time of writing. Should he win the event, the quick turnaround could backfire on the world no. 3 – who will have played three straight weeks of tournaments by the culmination of Rome. Still, a first round bye will help, before a potentially tricky collision with wild card Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek 19-year-old may have been granted special entry into the Madrid main draw, but the one-handed backhander has been making his presence known over the past few weeks: storming to the Barcelona Open final without dropping a set, and continuing his good form at the Estoril Open. The youngster is also still in action at his current event, but will lack the benefit of a first round bye in Spain.
Should Zverev come through his maiden encounter with the rising prospect, things do not ease up. Home star Fernando Verdasco – Zverev’s 2017 French Open victor – and 16th seed Fabio Fognini are both potential third round opposition, and each man is a renowned giant slayer.
On the other side of the bottom quarter, Isner has drawn a nicer path than any other top eight seed in the draw. Still, the 6’10” American is hardly known for his clay-court prowess, and a closer look at his section identifies potential for an early upset. Probable second round foe Guillermo Garcia-Lopez is in the mix as a wild card, but he has made a splash on dirt before – most notably dumping Stan Wawrinka out of the 2014 French Open in round one.
Spain’s Garcia-Lopez would need to dispose of Ryan Harrison, one of three Americans in this section of the quarter, in order to reach round two. The third American present here is 12th seed Jack Sock. The ATP Finals semifinalist – along with opening round threat Pablo Cuevas, experienced Albert Ramos-Vinolas and 2017 ATP title winner Peter Gojowczyk – is on track to take on Isner in the third round.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Fernando Verdasco
SEMIFINALS: Rafael Nadal d. Juan Martin del Potro, Kei Nishikori d. Fernando Verdasco
FINAL: Rafael Nadal d. Kei Nishikori
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