Madrid men: Rafa to keep rolling?

  • Matt Trollope

Having rediscovered winning form on clay, Rafael Nadal will target a sixth title at the Madrid Masters as he continues his build up to Roland Garros. 

The No.1 seed heads an impressive field in the Spanish capital featuring eight of the top 10 and 15 of the top 20, yet he is the only member of the vaunted Big Three in action, with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer – who have combined for six Madrid trophies – both absent. 

DRAW: Madrid Masters men's singles

With Nadal looking to fend off a host of impressive rising stars on his preferred surface, we’re in for an absorbing week of action at the Caja Magica.

Major storylines

Nadal’s form on clay has been the subject of much discussion in 2021, given his surprise quarterfinal exit in Monte Carlo to Andrey Rublev and some scratchy performances in the early rounds of Barcelona. Yet he went on to win the title in Barcelona with a compelling three-set victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas, removing any lingering doubt that may have existed around his status as French Open favourite.

Nadal has not performed as strongly in Madrid – given the court speed and altitude – as he has at other clay-court venues, but he has always gained confidence from court time and match victories, both of which he earned in Barcelona. He carries a five-match winning streak into Madrid.

Another player with abundant confidence is Tsitsipas, the fourth seed who has won nine of his past 10 clay-court matches. The Monte Carlo Masters champion beat Nadal at this event in 2019 and has won a tour-leading 26 matches in 2021, and could only meet Nadal in the final – if they both progress that far. After a first-round bye Tsitsipas opens against either Benoit Paire or Nikoloz Basilashvili.

A less-known quantity is Dominic Thiem, the third seed who makes his return to the court after six weeks away. The 2020 US Open champion, who has won just five of nine matches this season, has been dealing with injuries and recently alluded to burnout, but is a proven performer both on clay and in Madrid, where he was a finalist in both 2017 and 2018.

Less heralded on clay is No.2 seed Daniil Medvedev, hoping to snap a six-match losing streak on the surface. Forced to withdraw from the Monte Carlo Masters due to a positive COVID-19 test, Medvedev will make his first appearance on court since Miami and could tackle the in-from Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the second round.

Best first-round matches

Kei Nishikori v Karen Khachanov
Nishikori pushed Nadal to three sets in Barcelona and is a strong performer on clay, having reached the Madrid final in 2014. The former world No.4 takes on former world No.8 Khachanov, who despite a somewhat lean season is always a threat on this surface. The pair have split four career meetings.

Felix Auger-Aliassime v Casper Ruud
It is a battle between talented youngsters when Canada’s Auger-Aliassime – now working with Toni Nadal – takes on Norway’s Ruud, who trains at Rafael Nadal’s academy. Ruud has won five of his past six clay-court matches and his heavy spin and movement on clay could give him the edge over the No.15 seed, who notched a quarterfinal finish in Barcelona.  

Grigor Dimitrov v Lloyd Harris
In their first meeting, Harris – who owns a 12-7 record in 2021 – will eye an upset of No.12 seed Dimitrov, who is playing on arguably his least-preferred surface. The quicker conditions could suit the big serve of South Africa's Harris, who leads the tour for first-serve points won this season.

Looking ahead

Tennis fans will be keenly monitoring a potential second-round match between Nadal and 17-year-old wildcard Carlos Alcaraz – a clash between the present and future of Spanish tennis. 

That battle would eventuate if Alcaraz can get past Adrian Mannarino in round one, while Nadal will also be aware that another talented youngster, 14th seed Jannik Sinner, looms as a potential third-round foe. 

READ MORE: Madrid women - Barty, Osaka gunning for glory

Rublev, Nadal’s projected semifinal opponent, ties Tsitsipas as the player with the most match-wins in 2021. He has landed in the same quarter of the draw as Thiem, with a potential third-round meeting with ninth seed Roberto Bautista Agut.

In-form Russian Aslan Karatsev, a recent Belgrade finalist, begins his campaign against Ugo Humbert and looms as seventh seed Diego Schwartzman’s second-round opponent. Those players find themselves in the third quarter with Tsitsipas, who is favoured to come through that section – should he get through a possible last-16 battle against either Auger-Aliassime or Ruud. 

Belgrade champ Matteo Berrettini, seeded eighth, joins Medvedev in the bottom quarter and could take on fellow Italian Fabio Fognini in round two as he looks to build on his four-match winning streak.