Designed to capture attention and create publicity for the tournament, the new Madrid surface certainly succeeded in capturing the attention of the most prominent ATP players, who proceeded to create a sort of publicity unwelcome for the organizers. Now that the dust has started to settle on the debate over the blue clay, however, the leading men will return to what they do best: resourcefully subduing whatever challenges confront them. Fortunately for the tournament, many of those lurk across the net rather than beneath their feet.
First quarter: Despite disappointing his compatriots, Djokovic’s decision to withdraw from Belgrade this year gave him crucial time to recover his emotions for defending two Masters 1000 titles in the next two weeks. Successful in two of four title defenses so far this year, the world #1 has not lost to any opponent outside the current top 10. He should encounter little resistance from one of two qualifiers in his opener, but one of two lefties could offer more compelling competition afterwards. Scheduled to meet each other in the first round, Melzer and Lopez should prefer this slippery surface to other forms of clay while profiting from the Madrid altitude. In one of last year’s most memorable matches here, the latter lefty nearly upset Federer in the second round before falling in a third-set tiebreak. Recurrently dangerous on clay, Wawrinka has reached the quarterfinals or better at five of six non-majors this year, including a semifinal appearance in Estoril last week. Clearly a notch below the very best, he recently has looked more impressive than his ranking suggests and could intercept either Melzer or Lopez en route to meeting Djokovic in the third round. Reaching his first Masters 1000 clay semifinal in Monte Carlo, the ninth-seeded Simon built upon that effort to collect his second Bucharest title. Few would consider the unassuming Frenchman a true threat on this surface, and he defeated no noteworthy opponent other than Tsonga during that span. But those perceptions could change if he can exploit an accommodating section of the draw, which he shares with the underperforming Tipsarevic. Neither Simon nor the second-ranked Serb seems a plausible candidate to halt Djokovic in the quarterfinals, by when the world #1 should have adjusted to the surface.
Second quarter: Almost unseen since his title performance at Indian Wells, Federer exited Miami swiftly with a third-round loss to Roddick and has postponed his clay debut until well after those of his leading rivals. According to early reports, the blue court should favor his aggressive style in battles with more traditional clay counterpunchers, not something that he will expect in his first two matches. Tested through three sets by Raonic at Indian Wells, the 2009 Madrid champion may need to solve the Canadian’s towering serve in conditions that should maximize its effectiveness. Only a little less formidable is the challenge of opening the tournament against Nalbandian, a player who often has challenged Federer before at the Masters 1000 level (albeit not on clay). More minefields await in the third round with Bellucci, who came within two games of the upset at Indian Wells and defeated Ferrer in Monte Carlo, or Gasquet, who defeated the Swiss star in Rome last year and claimed the runner-up trophy in Estoril on Sunday. In a curious twist, Federer’s route might grow easier if he avoids all of the potential ambushes in those early rounds. Aligned to meet him in the quarterfinals is the aging Ferrer, who has accumulated a record of impressive futility against him despite winning a set in their last two clay encounters. Unlikely to appreciate the changes wrought by the new surface, the world #7 has won two titles on more conventional clay this year and severely threatened Nadal—even outplayed him, perhaps—in the Barcelona final. Since Ferrer often struggles to maintain his momentum, though, Almagro may ride his superior serve to a mini-upset at the tournament where he reached the semifinals in 2010. This Spaniard has not faced Federer since 2007, a radically different period in both careers.
Third quarter: When Murray withdrew before the draw, pleading a back injury, one knew that a middle quarter would look significantly less intimidating than the other three. (Considering the Scot’s ineptitude on clay this year, perhaps it would have looked much less intimidating anyway.) Probably the most dangerous figure in this section does not have a bye, a luxury that Del Potro would have enjoyed after his Estoril title this weekend. Tasked with the eccentric Florian Mayer instead, the tower of Tandil can anticipate a third-round clash of giants against Isner, unexpectedly effective in two clay Davis Cup ties this year that included a victory over Federer. Should the American falter at all in his opener, another lanky figure in Munich runner-up Cilic could exploit the opportunity. From this section in general spring few traditional clay-court experts but rather a group of hard-court aficionados hoping to adapt their styles as they capitalize upon their distance from the top three. No exception to this trend, the fourth-seeded Tsonga showed scant patience for the red clay of Monte Carlo or of Munich, where he lost to Haas in the first round. Although he has delivered only one reasonably convincing effort at a significant tournament this year, a Miami quarterfinal appearance, he can elevate his level from one week to the next without warning. Even more unpredictable is Dolgopolov, who enjoyed an encouraging clay campaign in 2011 and won a set from (an admittedly distracted) Djokovic at Monte Carlo. Like Tsonga, the Ukrainian shot-maker enjoys the journey more than the destination, but this combination should provide ample entertainment if they meet in the third round. Both have struggled mightily to conquer Del Potro, however, which bodes ill for their chances thereafter.
Semifinalist: Del Potro
Fourth quarter: Vociferous in his criticism of the blue clay, Nadal nevertheless should compete with pride rather than pique at the most important tournament in his home country. Sparing the Spaniard a duel with Karlovic in his opener, Davydenko brings a surprising 6-4 record into their meeting. The former top-5 threat nearly defeated Federer in February on indoor hard courts, the Swiss star’s most productive surface recently, and he once battled Nadal through three tense sets in Rome. Nevertheless, Davydenko has declined sharply over the past two years in consistency, never his greatest virtue, while his ranking has sagged to the fringes of irrelevance. In a similar position is Nadal’s potential third-round opponent Verdasco, who peaked near the same time as the Russian in 2009 before reverting to his familiar mixture of bone-crushing forehands and head-scratching shot selection. The latter trait doomed him to a lopsided loss when he met the world #2 in a Barcelona semifinal, and in fact he has compiled a record against Rafa identical to Ferrer’s winlessness against Federer. Unlike Verdasco, his compatriot Ferrero exploited his less apparent potential more fully before fading into twilight. With a little luck, he could edge past not only Andreev but a tired, emotionally satiated Munich champion in Kohlschreiber or the long-absent Monfils, who has played just 15 matches this year amidst nagging injuries. Other than Nadal, then, the sixth-seeded Berdych represents the only player with legitimate semifinal aspirations. The expressionless Czech has lost his last ten collisions with the Spaniard since defeating him at this tournament six years ago, during its span as an indoor hard-court event. After a vigorously contested quarterfinal in Melbourne this year, and a competitive quarterfinal in Miami last year, Berdych may believe that he can dampen this drought in another quarterfinal here.
Final: Federer vs. Nadal
Champion: Roger Federer