Madrid: Who Can Topple Nadal?
Much attention surrounds the final clay court Masters series despite still lacking a few top names. Juan Martin del Potro is recovering from wrist surgery, Nikolay Davydenko is trying to heal a broken wrist, and Novak Djokovic is battling allergy problems. There are, however, a few players to watch as they hit the clay for the last time before the French Open, and they are not just the top seeds.
When discussing a clay court tournament it is impossible to avoid mentioning the clear favourite to every clay court event he enters and wondering if anyone can beat him. Rafael Nadal often seems indestructible on his favourite surface but an unlikely conquerer emerged in Robin Soderling during the French Open 2009. In 2010 he once again is clearly the best clay court player but there is a slight chink in his armor. There is a belief that he can be beaten.
Ernests Gulbis is the most recent player to come close to taking out the Spaniard. He took a set and ran Nadal late into the third in their semi-final match in Rome. Gulbis took advantage of a slightly off Nadal with booming serves and controlled ground strokes. However, as many do, Gulbis eventually fell. The result a combination of his nerves and Nadal’s rock solid belief. Gulbis has already won his first round match against Albert Montanes and as I type is up a set on Mikhail Youzhny. His form so far suggests he is still on track this season, if he wants to meet Nadal though, he will have to play some excellent tennis to make the finals.
Robin Soderling is going under the radar once again. He has had some success on clay but is yet to set up a much anticipated rematch with Nadal. Should they meet, Soderling is bound to bring some renewed determination to his game. He will have to get past Fernando Verdasco first if he wants to meet him in Madrid. Mind you, Soderling may be content to leave it until the French Open.
Verdasco, meanwhile, has been the second best clay-courter this season, but although he has been taking out top seeds like Djokovic with apparent ease, Verdasco has come nowhere near to challenging Nadal. He was embarassed 6-0 6-1 by Nadal in the finals of Monte Carlo. He clearly has a mental block against his compatriot and unless he overcomes it and finds the belief and determination to win, Verdasco will continue to play second fiddle to Nadal.
The huge question mark in Madrid is hanging over the head of defending champion, Roger Federer. His season has been lackluster following his Australian Open win but as we all know with Federer there is no need to hit the panic button just yet. There is no doubt Federer fans are squirming in their seats a little. There is some reprieve in that he cannot meet Nadal until the final. Whether he can beat Nadal on clay is not the question, he proved he could this time last year. The question is whether Federer can find his form in time to meet Nadal in the final clay court Masters.
Madrid isn’t the most wide open tournament in the books but there certainly are players ready to crash Nadal’s party. Whether any of them can capitalise on it will be discovered this week. Unfortunately, besides Federer, Nadal’s strongest competition and the man most likely to add a third dimension to the clay-court duo will have to wait. The man with the game, determination, and will to beat Nadal cannot be found on the Madrid practise courts but instead in a tiny country town of Tandil resting his wrist. The question is, is anyone else willing to step up to the challenge?