With the French Open starting at the end of the month, the road to Roland Garros is in full swing. Madrid plays host to the first of two prestigious combined lead-up events. Thanks to a rare weekend start, the tournament is already underway. Here are some things to watch for.
If you are tired of hearing about how good Rafael Nadal is on clay, please scroll to the next part of the article. The Spanish lefty has won 46 straight sets on the red dirt. He is fresh off wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He has now won those events 11 times each in his illustrious career. Nadal has had the title of greatest clay-court player ever locked up for a while now. Still, he had not played an official tournament match since January prior to Monte Carlo two weeks ago.
He flipped some sort of switch and looks unbeatable again on his favorite surface. He is as overwhelming a favorite as the sport has ever seen to pick up his 11th French Open title in about a month. While it is somewhat tiresome to see one player dominating everything at the moment, sometimes you just have to marvel at greatness. In the more immediate future, Nadal’s quest for a sixth title in Madrid will be challenged by Alexander Zverev and Juan Martin del Potro among others.
Sharapova and Djokovic look to get on track
Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova have been two of the more disappointing players in 2018. Sharapova entered Madrid in the midst of her first four-match losing streak since 2003. Djokovic comes in with just five match wins on the year after an injury-plagued 2017.
Sharapova has struggled with injuries and poor form since returning to the tour from suspension a little over a year ago. However, there is reason for cautious optimism in Madrid. The Russian finally got back in the win column with a straight sets victory on Sunday. Moreover, the two seeded players Sharapova would have had to play early on are already out of the event.
You can only play the players the draw puts in front of you, and Sharapova has had her fair share of tough matchups since she returned to the game. This week though, she finds herself poised to make a run to at least the quarterfinals in the Spanish capital. This would be a much-needed boost to the 2014 Madrid winner’s ranking.
Every match is a test for Sharapova right now. Still, if she can win over three quarters of points on her first serve the way she did in her opener, a deep run is not only attainable, but likely.
The tennis draw gods were not nearly as friendly to Djokovic. The Serb opens up against Kei Nishikori Monday morning. Nishikori is a former Grand Slam finalist, who is also coming back from injury. These two have battled it out for Olympic medals and trips to major finals fairly recently. It will be strange to see them play so early in a tournament. Djokovic dominates the head-to-head matchup, but is tinkering with both his game and coaching team constantly as his struggles have continued.
Nishikori reached the final in Monte Carlo a few weeks back. The last thing the 12-time major winner needs is another early loss, but Djokovic will have his work cut out for him to avoid that fate.
Ladies title contenders
World No. 1 Simona Halep has to be considered the favorite this week. She is the two-time defending champ in Madrid. The Romanian is perhaps more comfortable at this event than any other on the calendar. Halep’s slant towards a defensive style of play has always translated well to clay.
Caroline Wozniacki has an outside chance to retake the top ranking from Halep this week. However, the Dane has been fairly pedestrian since winning her first career major in Australia in January. Also, she has never been much of a threat at the more prestigious clay-court events. Elina Svitolina is a more realistic threat to Halep. The Ukrainian has a good draw as the fourth seed and won a big title on clay in Rome last year.
Serena Williams is sitting this one out as she continues to try and find the right schedule for her body post childbirth. Still, it would be foolish to completely discount the old guard like Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, who appears to finally have her child custody dispute straightened out.
Even with Roger Federer voluntarily passing on playing on clay for the second year in a row and question marks surrounding Williams, there is no shortage of stars and storylines to watch as the second major of the year creeps closer.
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