The clay swing is already off and swinging and as we head into the month of May, the stakes have just gotten higher with two Masters and the French Open on the schedule. Today, the tennis writers from VAVEL USA take a look at the Mutua Madrid Open and give their predictions on favorites, dark horses, champions, and more.
1. Who is the favorite for the title? Why?
Noel Alberto: My favorite has to be Kei Nishikori. The two-time reigning Barcelona champion and runner-up in Madrid last year should be motivated to taste his first success at a Masters title. A back injury forced him him to retire in the final last year against Rafael Nadal, and without Novak Djokovic, he is ready to finally get his shot at Masters glory.
Grace Cooper: You can never count Rafael Nadal out. His season so far is not as successful as in the past, but on clay, everything can change. He played poorly in Barcelona but he had a very good run in Monte Carlo. Rafa is defending champion in Madrid- last year he proved that even after a tough start to the clay season he can bounce back. I think that Rafa's ability to overcome adversity is the best in sport, I wouldn't be surprised if he picked up his 2nd title of the season next week.
Pedro Cunha: I think David Ferrer could win the title. He's having an amazing season. This year on clay he's won an ATP 500, reached the semifinals in another, and he was a quarterfinalist in Monte Carlo. He's playing in his home country so he has the support of the crowd.
Tim Charlton: The favourite without a doubt is Nadal there is no argument. That isn't to say he will win it but without Djokovic in the field, he is the best clay courter ever and even at 70% would beat pretty much everyone in the tournament bar the odd exception.
2. Who is the dark horse for the title? Why?
N.A: My darkhorse is Gael Monfils. The Frenchman has showed how well he can play on clay with a semifinal showing in Monte Carlo just last month. With what should be a worn out Murray in his draw, don’t be surprised if he gets to another semifinal or even further in the Spanish capital.
G.C: Berdych is having a very impressive clay season so far, reaching the final in Monte Carlo - Djokovic. Well, the only man that stood in his way of winning the tournament is not participating in Madrid. Tomas has proved he can succeed on clay, he's improving every year. His draw is tough, a potential quarterfinal with Federer will be a challenge, but I think he's ready.
P.C: Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in my opinion is the dark horse. This season he has already won two titles, I know that the titles were of minor tournaments, but one of those titles was on clay two weeks ago in Bucharest where he defeated Monfils, Vesely and Rosol, and was a semifinalist in Estoril. Besides that I saw him play at Estoril against Coric, and he's playing really well and can perfectly be a dark horse.
T.C: Dark horse here for me is Milos Raonic. Who I can only consider a dark horse because of the surface being clay. But with great form and the slow surface giving him chance to dominate with his forehand I would not be surprised to see a very strong run here.
3. Which seeded player has the toughest draw?
N.A: Banking on my previous point, I believe Andy Murray has the toughest draw. Having played back-to-back matches in Munich on Saturday to get to the finals is going to wear him out early. A possible showdown against fellow Munich finalist Phillip Kohlschreiber awaits in the second round then Gael Monfils and possibly Raonic or Lopez after that. Not really smooth sailing for the second seed.
G.C: David Ferrer must be one of the unluckiest players when it comes to draws. This time, he's in a half with Verdasco, Cilic, Robredo and Nishikori. Perhaps with the exception of Cilic, these guys all know what it takes to succeed on clay. Matches are gruelling and with no days off when you get further into the week, it'll be tough for the Spaniard.
P.C: Roger Federer
T.C: Dimitrov without a doubt has the toughest route. He would potentially have to go through Fognini, Wawrinka then Nadal just to get to semis for a matchup against Roger Federer. We will have to see a completely different Grigor to the one so far in 2015 to even get through the first couple of days.
4. What first round matchup intrigues you the most? Why?
N.A: The first round matchup that intrigues me the most is Juan Monaco and Nicolas Almagro. This is probably not the sexy pick, but hear me out on this. Monaco has had a stellar season by his standards so far while Almagro is looking to rejuvenate his career after injuries slowed him down. An intriguing clash of styles here as Monaco tends to be a grinder while Almagro packs a punch especially on the backhand size. Look for the winner of this match to possibly win a couple of matches after.
G.C: I'm a big fan of the long battles based on defence that the Spanish and South American players provide. The 1st round match between Juan Monaco and Nicolas Almagro will be an interesting one to watch as at the moment I'd say both guys are pretty much on par. I know I'll enjoy that one!
P.C: G.Garcia-Lopez vs. F.Verdasco. Verdasco has won the last four matches between them, but now Garcia-Lopez is very confident, as he's having a great season so far.
T.C: Gulbis Vs Goffin has me watering at the mouth with what will be a phenomenally intriguing 1st round match up. Goffin who has turned his career around in the past year against Gulbis who has fallen far from the heights he reached last year. This one could easily fizzle out with a whimper though if Ernests doesn't turn up and David may end up cruising to victory. A quick mention has to go to Cuevas - Robredo and Almagro - Monaco, two matches pitting fantastic clay court specialists against one another.
5. How far will Nadal make it? Why?
N.A: I think Nadal makes it to the final. I know Federer is the inform of the two players, but Nadal always brings up his game another notch should he face Federer. Nadal’s draw isn’t the worst, and he should be thankful he does not have Fabio Fognini to see in the first few rounds.
G.C: You'll probably know by now that I'm a huge Nadal fan, he's what brought me into tennis, therefore I'm a little bias. I believe Rafa will reach at least the semi finals. Once he's reached the weekend, his confidence will have improved and he'll have gained momentum. It's nearly always case of go out early of go deep when it comes to Rafa. The 3rd Round loss against Fognini last week was very unusual and I don't think that'll happen again. He's been practicing in Madrid for a few days so it's clear to see that he's working hard. Vamos Rafa!
P.C: I think Nadal will lose in the semifinal against Federer if Federer passes by his challenges (Kyrgios, Chardy, Berdych). Nadal is not having his best days, and I think he needs more confidence to play here. He´s going to play at home so it depends too if he can handle the preassure, something that never scared him when he was on top of the rankings, but now that he's not, anything can happen.
T.C: Well that is the question we would all like answered and for me the minimum is he will get to the final with a very favourable draw. Johnson, Bolelli and Wawrinka/Dimitrov would be his route to a semi final match up against Roger Federer. And no matter what on clay he will always be a huge favourite on clay against Roger. However if he reached the final he could face last years finalist Nishikori who would cause him huge problems as he did last year, and 12 months down the line their careers have gone in opposite directions..
6. Do we see a new winner in the Caja Magica? Why?
N.A: Yes I believe we see a new winner in the Caja Magica. The next generation of tennis stars are charging hard, and their first step to glory will be taking the title in Madrid. Nishikori should have the best showing of Dimitrov, Raonic, and himself, but don’t be surprised if the other two try and push on for a semifinals spot.
G.C: Maybe… With Djokovic out the draw will really open up. Nishikori, Berdych or Ferrer are the only guys I'd say that can give Nadal and Federer some really tough competition at the moment though.
P.C: It's a difficult question to answer. Nishikori for example has been having an awesome season, and he has never won here. He was a finalist last year. This year could be his year in Madrid. He already defended the title in Barcelona, and he likes playing in Spain.
T.C: The biggest first time challengers for the title would be Nishikori and Ferrer. Even though the draw does look wide open, if I had to say would the winner be one of Federer, Nadal or Murray, I would say yes.
7. How far will last year's runner-up Kei Nishikori go? Why?
N.A: Just like Nadal, I think Kei Nishikori is going to be a finalist as well. It’s looking more and more likely that clay should be his favorite surface, but it’s by far his best. The clay gives him more time to react to shots that are typically going to be hit back as short balls on grass and hard courts. Like I said earlier, he should be motivated to taste success, and this is his best shot at it.
G.C: Nishikori is in a very good position once again this year. A couple of weeks ago he successfully defended his title in Barcelona, winning it for the second year in a row. Last year after winning the title in Barcelona he reached the final of Madrid, retiring in the final due to injury. This time around he looks in very good physical shape and is clearly playing very well, so I think he's a definite contender.
P.C: Like I answered before, this is year can be Nishilori's year in Madrid.
T.C: Nishikori for me is the one big threat to the dominance of the top 3 players in the world (Rafa, Roger, Novak). Times the ball like a dream and is almost unparallelled with his quality of ground strokes from the back of the court. I think he will make the final and make a repeat of the 2014 final against Rafa, but Ferrer may be a threat to this.
8. Which nonseed will advance the furthest?
N.A: The non-seed that will advance the furthest is going to be Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. The Spaniard has been hot so far in the clay winning in Bucharest and has had a strong showing in Portugal as well. Verdasco isn’t the best on clay so his first round matchup is not too bad. The seeded players in his draw are beatable, Cilic and Ferrer, so a fourth round showing would be a very good showing for the Spaniard.
G.C: Pablo Andujar. He's playing great at the moment, he reached the Barcelona final and definitely put up a fight.
P.C: Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. He's having an amazing clay season and is coming off of a title in Bucharest and a semifinals appearance in Estoril. As the inform player, he's one to watch out for.
T.C: I am going to back the inform man Richard Gasquet who has just captured a title on the dirt in Estoril. With a tricky route through Karlovic then Berdych, I really do fancy him to push on and make a quarterfinals appearance against Roger Federer this week.
9. Who are your finalists and winner? Why?
N.A: If you’ve been reading up to this point, you all well know my final is Nadal and Nishikori. I believe Nishikori takes home the title this year because of how well he’s playing right now, and Nadal’s struggles in the big matches and points. Those struggles will haunt him in this final allowing Nishikori to pounce on the opportunity to lift up his first ever Masters title.
G.C: I'm predicting a Nadal/Nishikori final again, and edging Nadal to win the whole tournament. However, there are honestly so many possible combinations in this tournament, it's pretty open. I'm excited to see how it turns out.
P.C: My finalists are David Ferrer and Roger Federer. They are "old school" but capable of passing through all of the challenges that are on their way.
T.C: I think it is clear I think it will be Nishikori - Nadal in the final this week. They are the strongest two clay courters in their respective halves of the draw. If Nishikori does manage to make it to the final my pick for the winner will be Kei. However if Rafa plays anyone else in the final I think he will capture a much needed masters title before Roland Garros.