As The Mutua Madrid Open Begins, Can Anyone Beat Nadal On Clay?

WASHINGTON, May 5, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

Can anyone beat Rafael Nadal on clay? That’s a question everyone seems to be asking on the eve of the Mutua Madrid Open, the next stop on the ATP European clay court season and the first of back-to-back ATP Masters 1000 tournaments (to be followed by Rome) on the road to the French Open at Roland Garros. After all, Nadal has won 46 consecutive sets and 19 straight matches on clay, his favorite surface.

The 31-year-old Nadal has had a week to rest up following his latest clay triumph in Barcelona over #NextGenATP upstart Stefanos Tsitsipas that came a week after his equally successful triumph in Monte-Carlo against Kei Nishikori. At each stop, Nadal collected his 11th career title in winning the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters and the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell. Now, the King of Clay is going after his sixth title in Madrid where he’s 45-7 lifetime – with titles won in 2008, 2010, 2013-14 and 2017 – and adding another big trophy to his collection would help him retain his No. 1 world ranking over Roger Federer. The Spaniard was also a finalist on the red clay at the Caja Mágica in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2015. So, all signs point to a repeat of his success on Spanish clay as he also goes after his 32nd career Masters 1000 singles title.

At the top of this year’s draw, which was released on Friday afternoon – and is absent of the injured Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka plus Federer, who is taking the clay season off – the top-seeded Nadal (following a first-round bye) has been drawn to meet either Gael Monfils or a qualifier in the second round. A possible third-round opponent is 13th-seeded Diego Schwartzman. Then, it gets interesting as fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem could pose a significant quarterfinal challenge for Nadal – Nadal beat Thiem 6-0, 6-2 in the Monte-Carlo quarterfinals – followed by fourth-seeded Juan Martín del Potro in the semifinals.

Finally, should Nadal reach the finals next weekend – and it would be front page news if he doesn’t – there’s second-seeded Alexander Zverev, the No. 1 seed and a semifinalist in the BMW Open by FWU at Munich this weekend, who would be a formidable contender. A year ago, Zverev beat Fernando Verdasco, Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych before losing to Pablo Cuevas in the quarterfinals in his Madrid debut. The 21-year-old Zverev has faced Nadal twice on clay this season – both losses – in a Davis Cup quarterfinal rubber hosted by Spain and, more recently, in Monte-Carlo.

Meanwhile, in what will be one of most talked about and watched first-round matches, 10th-seeded Novak Djokovic, ranked 12th, has been drawn to face the unseeded Nishikori, ranked 21st. Also, there’s 9th-seeded Pablo Carreño Busta facing unseeded Borna Coric, ranked 30th, and, finally, 14th-seeded Berdych will go against unseeded Richard Gasquet, ranked 29th.

Earlier this week, in an interview with the Mutua Madrid Open website, Nadal looked back at his road to winning his fifth Mutua Madrid Open title. “Last year I was playing really well. The first match against (Fabio) Fognini was a turning point. The first day you always experience some difficult sensations, playing at altitude, at home. … You arrive keen to do well and everything becomes a little more complicated. I got through that match with Fognini and then I played really well. I started off losing the final against Thiem, but when you come into the match feeling positive and with momentum … the reality is that you have more solutions because you have confidence and things work practically automatically.”

News and notes

• Rafael Nadal’s 46-set winning streak is an Open Era (since 1968) record on clay and just three sets shy of a record on any surface, which was set by John McEnroe on carpet in 1984 with 49 consecutive sets won.

• This year’s Mutua Madrid Open features 17 of the current Top 20 players. Seven different men have captured the last seven ATP Masters 1000 titles for the first time since 2009 Montreal through 2010 Monte-Carlo.

• Nadal is 401-35 on clay lifetime with an ATP-best winning percentage of .920. Since Madrid switched to clay in 2009, Nadal is an impressive 34-5 at Caja Mágica.