Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his win over Novak Djokovic of Serbia in his semi-final match during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. Nadal won the match in three sets, 3-6, 7-6 and 7-6.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia lies on the court after slipping on the clay against Oscar Hernandez of Spain in their second round  match during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 13, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Novak Djokovic

Having divided the four most important titles of the season so far, the ATP top two could meet again on the Madrid plateau where they dueled so valiantly two years ago.  But first they must negotiate a draw bristling with more dragon’s teeth than those sown by Cadmus.

First quarter:  Falling to Baghdatis in Cincinnati last year, Nadal should find the Cypriot less formidable on clay and certainly less formidable than his potential third-round opponent, Del Potro.   Assigned an opening-round clash with the clay-averse Youzhny, the 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist may arrive in Madrid weary from a fruitful week in Estoril.  Yet he still possesses the ball-striking talent to trouble the top seed in a stadium better suited to offensive tennis than the ordinary clay court.  Less ominous is the rest of this section, headlined by a 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist who defeated in Federer in Monte Carlo and Nadal in their most recent meeting.  Comfortably dispatched by the Spaniard in Madrid two years ago and at Roland Garros last year, Melzer probably would have little greater success than Baghdatis at replicating his hard-court achievement against the world #1.  Absent from Madrid last year, Roddick should prefer this atypical clay tournament to its brethren, for the thin, dry air should allow him to impose his serve more effectively upon his opponents. The altitude proved of little aid against Rafa in a Madrid Davis Cup tie, however, and the American has struggled with an untimely concatenation of injuries and illness that have reduced him to his lowest ranking in years.  Not to be overlooked is the recently resurgent Gasquet, never at his best on clay but still a threat to the erratic Melzer and the declining Roddick.

Second quarter:  Undone by Del Potro twice in two months, Soderling will rejoice to see Nadal saddled with that burden instead.  Nevertheless, the Swede should not celebrate too soon, since Australian Open nemesis Dolgopolov could await in his opener.  Struggling to regain his January-February brilliance, Soderling might falter against an opponent with underrated skills on the surface, demonstrated by a Costa do Sauipe final and a vigorous battle with Ferrer in Acapulco.  From this brutal section of the draw next might spring Almagro, who captured a set from Nadal in their nation’s capital last year.  Confronted with the shockingly unseeded Tsonga in his opener, the Spaniard aims to justify his newly acquired top-10 status before his compatriots, rarely an easy task.  Examining this bristling sub-section, one almost might neglect the 2009 Madrid and Roland Garros champion aligned to meet Nadal in a semifinal for the second time this year.  Although Raonic and Lopez theoretically might challenge Federer, their arduous weeks in Estoril and Belgrade (respectively) might have softened their resistance to a Swiss star who disappointed in Monte Carlo.  Toppled by a lefty on that occasion, Federer should face another imposing lefty in Verdasco albeit one who has won only a solitary set from him in four meetings.  Awakening from an abject slump in Estoril, the Spaniard may have seized motivation from a perceived slight by the Barcelona tournament.  He has the weapons to upset a complacent Federer—and nearly did in London once—but does he have the will?

Third quarter:   Nearly bereft of clay specialists, this section might play largely according to form unless the unseeded Davydenko can capitalize upon his Munich momentum to mount an inspired surge.  Such a surge would need to begin in the second round against Berdych, who defeated him in Dubai this year after losing nine of their ten previous encounter.   Unexpectedly scintillating in Monte Carlo, Murray anchors the base of this section as he aims to recover from an elbow injury that did not forestall him from endangering Nadal at the last Masters 1000 event.  Injured in Monte Carlo himself, Simon might reprise his Mediterranean meeting with the Scot if he can elude the evergreen Ljubicic.  Few notable obstacles bar the fourth seed’s route to the quarterfinals, where last year’s Roland Garros nemesis Berdych might await.  Thoroughly outslugged and outmaneuvered on that overcast afternoon, Murray might prefer to tangle with Davydenko or the recuperating Monfils in a battle of baseline counterpunchers.  As with the fourth quarter of the women’s draw, this section almost certainly will not produce the eventual champion.  On the other hand, an array of sparkling backhands will dazzle viewers in the Caja Magica, ranging from Murray and Davydenko to Troicki and Simon.  Look elsewhere for classic clay-court tennis but not for high-quality rallies and crisp ball-striking of the highest level.

Fourth quarter:  With a Slam title and two Masters 1000 shields tucked away in his Monegasque lair, Djokovic already has accomplished more than almost any player can reasonably expect from a season.  One wonders whether and when his motivation will start to ebb, just as one wonders whether and when the motivation of potential second-round foe Gulbis will reconstitute itself.  Having succumbed to the Latvian during his 2009 skid, Djokovic allowed him a single game at Indian Wells in March and should show scant mercy to a player who will slide swiftly down the rankings with a tepid May.  Twice extended by Wawrinka to third sets on clay, the second seed will find the Swiss #2 useful preparation for a dangerous quarterfinal with Ferrer.  Flawless on clay this year against everyone but Nadal, the Spanish #2 would relish the opportunity to avenge his Miami loss to Fish in the third round.  Intriguingly, Djokovic never has defeated Ferrer on clay and has lost the last seven sets that they have contested on the latter’s favorite surface.  Will the Madrid crowd witness a performance from their countryman as compelling as his semifinal run here in 2010?  If Djokovic aims to emerge as the leading challenger to Nadal’s clay hegemony in 2011, the road to that destination lies through the diminutive Spaniard who twice has played runner-up to Rafa this year.

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