It's been a rather tumultuous first frame of the 2019 clay court season, with Dominic Thiem's win in Barcelona being the only semi-predictable result. If someone had told you at the start of the year that Fabio Fognini would have a claycourt title by the start of May and Rafael Nadal wouldn't, how long would it have taken you to report that person for psychiatric help?
And yet here we are, all set to dive into the heart of the clay swing, with all sorts of question marks around Nadal's form. That is such a surprising development that it threatens to overshadow everything else at the Madrid Masters – including the return to action of two high-profile champions.
On that note, here's a look at how the four quarters are expected to unfold:
First quarter: How motivated is Djokovic and how fit is Del Potro?
The last time we saw Novak Djokovic, he was putting in a strangely disinterested show against Daniil Medvedev in the Monte Carlo quarter-finals. The World No 1 seems to be struggling for motivation at the non-Slam events, but the Madrid Masters provides him with an opportunity to lay down a marker for Roland Garros and you can bet he'll want to make use of that.
Djokovic could start against Grigor Dimitrov in the second round. The Bulgarian showed signs of life in his Monte Carlo loss to Nadal but has otherwise had rather mediocre clay court results in the last few years. That said, Dimitrov's sole career win over Djokovic came at Madrid, way back in 2013, so he'd likely use that match as inspiration.
Next up for Djokovic could be Diego Schwartzman or Marco Cecchinato, his Roland Garros conqueror last year. But it's his projected quarter-final opponent that's attracting all the attention: Juan Martin del Potro has entered the singles and doubles draws in Madrid, making this his first tour-level appearance since February.
Nobody quite knows the status of Del Potro's health, so it is doubtful whether he'll make it all the way to the quarters. He starts against either Dusan Lajovic or Laslo Djere and could face Jan-Lennard Struff or Marin Cilic in the third round. There's also the possibility of a Nick Kyrgios sighting at that stage, but it would be unwise to put too many hopes on the Australian given his self-proclaimed hatred of clay.
Quarterfinal prediction: Novak Djokovic def. Dusan Lajovic
Dark horse: Jan-Lennard Struff
First-round match to watch: Diego Schwartzman vs Marco Cecchinato
Second quarter: Federer returns to clay but his journey may be short-lived
Three years have passed since Roger Federer last played on red dirt and it almost seems unnatural to see his name in the draw of a clay court tournament. Fortunately for him, he's still ranked in the top four, which means he has his own quarter to play around with.
Unfortunately for him, the second highest seed in his supposed playground is Dominic Thiem, who is looking more and more like a raging, unchained bull with each passing week. Thiem's Barcelona win seemed to suggest he has turned a corner when it comes to backing up his big wins with strong performances against lesser opponents and apart from Fabio Fognini in the third round, his Madrid draw hasn't thrown up any major curveballs.
Federer on his part has a couple of significant obstacles even before he gets to Thiem. In his comeback match, he could face Richard Gasquet, who can play on clay, or Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, the 19-year-old Spaniard who's been making waves in the ongoing Estoril tournament (Fokina defeated Gael Monfils on Friday). If he passes that test he would have to deal with one of Monfils, David Goffin or Marton Fucsovics, none of whom can be called easy opponents on clay.
Quarter-final prediction: Dominic Thiem def. Roger Federer
Dark horse: Gael Monfils
First-round match to watch: David Goffin vs Marton Fucsovics
Third quarter: Can the lost find their way back?
This quarter reads like a who's who of talented players suffering a severe dip in confidence and form. The games of Alexander Zverev, Karen Khachanov and Lucas Pouille have seemingly fallen off a cliff in the last couple of months and nobody is quite sure when or how they'll find their way back.
Zverev is the top seed but last heard, he was losing in 250 tournaments to players ranked outside the top 30. Khachanov has struggled to buy a win of any kind in 2019 and his job won't be made any easier by the fact that he is drawn to face Jaume Munar in the first round. And Pouille, a semi-finalist at the Australian Open this year, starts his campaign against Borna Coric.
Stefanos Tsitsipas is the second highest seed in the quarter and he might be licking his lips at the prospect of sleep-walking through such a wide-open draw. Also here is Alex de Minaur, who is making a comeback after an injury so serious that it is frankly surprising to see him in action so soon.
But the most notable name here is one that has very little chance of making it to the quarter-final. David Ferrer had announced earlier that Madrid would be the last tournament of his career and he starts his swansong event against Roberto Bautista Agut. He could run into Zverev and Coric after that, so sometime in the middle of this week, we should expect a tearful farewell for one of the most liked players on tour.
Quarter-final prediction: Stefanos Tsitsipas def. Borna Coric
Dark horse: Jaume Munar
First-round match to watch: David Ferrer vs Roberto Bautista Agut
Fourth quarter: What ails Rafa?
As you've probably heard, this is the first time since 2004 that Nadal has failed to win a single tournament in the first four months of the year. He was laid low by injury in March and didn't quite look like his usual clay court self in Monte Carlo.
He seemed to be getting back to his best in Barcelona before being swatted aside by a Thiem-shaped tornado in the semi-final and it's unclear how much damage that loss would have inflicted on his psyche. Nadal is a confidence player and while more matches under his belt will likely help him regain his clay court rhythm, he would want to avoid another matchup against Thiem at this point of the calendar.
Fortunately for Nadal, he can only meet Thiem in the final. And before that, his draw seems fairly manageable, especially in the early stages. He faces either Denis Shapovalov or Felix Auger-Aliassime first up, followed by possibly Nikoloz Basilashvili or Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round.
At the other end of the quarter is Kei Nishikori, who finally seemed to have turned his season around with a semi-final finish in Barcelona. He could meet his conqueror from that tournament, Daniil Medvedev, as early as the third round in Madrid, but the Russian would first have to get past Guido Pella and possibly Stan Wawrinka.
Quarter-final prediction: Rafael Nadal def. Daniil Medvedev
Dark horse: Stan Wawrinka
First-round match to watch: Denis Shapovalov vs Felix Auger-Aliassime
Semi-final predictions: Dominic Thiem def. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal def. Stefanos Tsitsipas
Final prediction: Dominic Thiem def. Rafael Nadal
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Updated Date: May 04, 2019 18:48:11 IST