As The Mutua Madrid Open Begins, Who’s Ready To Step Up Against Nadal On Clay?

MADRID, May 6, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

When last year’s Mutua Madrid Open commenced, everybody wondered if there was anyone who could beat Rafael Nadal on clay. Fair question, especially since Nadal had been dominant in winning Monte-Carlo and Barcelona at the start of the 2018 European clay season. It turned out there was some one, Dominic Thiem, who knocked off Nadal in the Madrid quarterfinal round.

Fast forward to now, Nadal has proven to be a mere mortal on the red dirt this season. He failed to reach either final at Monte-Carlo or Barcelona, tournaments that he’s dominated in the past and that were won this year by Fabio Fognini and Thiem. So, as the 2019 Mutua Madrid Open commences, although Nadal is still the one to beat on clay and remains very much the center of everyone’s attention – and many ask if Alexander Zverev can repeat his 2018 Madrid success, when he beat Thiem in straight sets to win the title – there’s plenty of hungry, would-be conquerors whom could emerge in this ATP Masters 1000 run up to Roland Garros.

At the top of the draw, away from the five-time Madrid champion Nadal, are World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic (two-time Madrid champion, in 2011 and 2016) and No. 4 seed Roger Federer. The Swiss, who will move up to No. 3 in the rankings on Monday, is making a much-anticipated return to the tactical and grinding clay for the first time since Rome in May 2016. However, Federer is no stranger to the Caja Magica, where he’s 35-8 lifetime and has lifted three Madrid trophies. He will make his Madrid debut on Tuesday evening against either Richard Gasquet or Estoril semifinalist Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. Other top seeds in the top half of the draw include No. 5 Thiem, No. 7 Juan Martín del Potro and No. 9 Marin Cilic. Add to that group No. 10 Fognini, No. 15 Gaël Monfils and No. 16 Marco Cecchinato, and it’s packed with plenty of marquee names.

Coming in, Federer has won 18 of 20 matches this season and collected two titles, including the 100th of his career at Dubai in February and No. 101 at Miami last month. He told New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey that he’s eager and ready to return to clay.

“I feel now I can play pressure free, because what is there to lose? Nothing really,” said Federer. “I haven’t played on clay for three years so maybe for the first time in 15 years I can go to the French and be like, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ And maybe that’s exactly what is going to make a beautiful result. And if it’s not, no problem. Then I have more time for the grass, and I still profited from a great buildup, and it’s made me strong physically, and it’s good for my game.”

In the bottom half, there’s the No. 2 seed Nadal, who will be tested right away when he faces #NextGenATP star Felix Auger-Aliassime in the second round. He could face No. 6 seed Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals and there’s also No. 3 seed Zverev and No. 8 seed and Millennium Estoril Open titlist Stefanos Tsitsipas as possible semifinal opponents. Other seeds in Nadal’s half include No. 11 Karen Khachanov, No. 12 Daniil Medvedev, No. 13 Borna Coric and No. 14 Nikolaz Basilashvili. All of them are formidable competitors on clay.

The defending champion Zverev, who comes to Madrid after a disappointing quarterfinal finish in Munich, did not drop his serve during last year’s title run. He strung together consecutive wins over John Isner, Denis Shapovalov and Thiem that improved his tournament win-loss record to 8-1. His first test will come in the second round when he faces either Roberto Bautista Agut or David Ferrer.

Before anyone writes off Nadal, one should keep in mind that he’s 49-11 lifetime in Madrid and an 80-time tour-level titlist, including 33 ATP Masters 1000 crowns. The Spaniard is also vying for his ninth final in the Spanish capital city.

Struff, Auger-Aliassime first into second round

• No. 48 Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany upset No. 34 Nick Kyrgios of Australia, 7-6 (4), 6-4, in just 65 minutes to begin main draw play Sunday afternoon. He capitalized on a 91 percent efficiency rate (30 of 33) in winning points on his first serve and hit 12 aces. Struff lost just eight points on his serve and he broke Kyrgios twice in three opportunities to advance. His second-round opponent will be either No. 9 seed Marin Cilic or qualifier Martin Klizan.

• In an all-#NextGenATP star encounter between fellow Canadians, No. 30 wild card Felix Auger-Aliassime beat No. 20 Denis Shapovalov, 6-2, 7-6 (7) on his fourth match-point opportunity in the featured Sunday night session match that lasted one hour and 49 minutes. It was the second tour-level head-to-head match and first since Shapovalov beat Auger-Aliassime by retirement at last year’s U.S. Open. The 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime faces No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal in the second round.

Five seeds advance from qualifying draw

Only five of 14 seeds advanced out of the qualifying draw into the 56-player main singles draw following two rounds of qualifying matches. They include: No. 1 Pierre-Hugues Herbert, No. 3 Hubert Hurkacz, No. 7 Taylor Fritz, No. 8 Reilly Opelka and No. 9 Martin Klizan.

Notebook

• The Mutua Madrid Open will be Spaniard David Ferrer’s final tournament of his career. He opposes Munich semifinalist Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round. The 144th-ranked Ferrer, 37, enters his final tournament having won 27 ATP Tour titles while reaching a career-high ranking of No. 3. He was honored during a ceremony on the Manolo Santana show court that included many of his ATP contemporaries, including Roger Federer.

Said Federer: “I’m a big admirer of his work ethic and personality. Of course, also his success. But the person comes first and he’s – the guy has been so solid for the past 20 years. He’s always been the same guy and I have always appreciated that.”

• Although Roger Federer has won just one French Open (2009), his career winning percentage on clay is 76 percent, which ranks him behind only Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic among active players with at least 50 clay-court victories.

Sunday’s results 

Singles / first round
Jan-Lennard Struff d. Nick Kyrgios, 7-6 (4), 6-4.
WC-Felix Auger-Aliassime d. Denis Shapovalov, 6-2, 7-6 (7)

Qualifying singles / final round
No. 1 Pierre-Hugues Herbert d. No. 11 Robin Haase, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (5)
Albert Ramos-Vinolas d. Casper Ruud, 2-6, 7-6 (3), 6-1
No. 3 Hubert Hurkacz d. WC-Roberto Carballes Baena, 6-4, 6-4
Hugo Dellien d. Guido Andreozzi, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2
No. 9 Martin Klizan d. No. 5 Adrian Mannarino, 6-3, 6-2
No. 8 Reilly Opelka d. Juan Ignacio Londero, 7-6 (7), 5-7, 6-2
No. 7 Taylor Fritz d. Marius Copil, 7-6 (5), 7-5.