Madrid Draw Musings: Nadal’s rough road, Thiem and Medvedev return

Rafael Nadal is looking at a few generational battles in Madrid, and Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem are hoping to get their feet beneath them on the clay. Here’s what the Madrid Open draw taught us…

nadal_madrid_2017

The draw at the 2021 Mutua Madrid Open has been set, and some enticing early round matchups will keep fans on the edge of their seats during the early rounds of 2021’s second Masters 1000 event on clay. Let’s have a look at the key matchups and storylines… 

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Nadal to be tested early 

The King of Clay will be feeling a lot more confident about his clay game after claiming his 12th title at the Barcelona Open a week ago, and Rafael Nadal will need that confidence early as the Spaniard will face a potential buzzsaw of youth in his first two matches. 

Five-time Madrid Open champion Nadal, who owns a 52-12 lifetime record at Madrid, could face 17-year-old wild card Carlos Alcaraz in the second round, but for that matchup to happen the rising Spaniard will have to find a way past French veteran Adrian Mannarino. If we glance at Mannarino’s lifetime record of 14-44 on clay (2-5 at Madrid), one would think the odds are good that Alcaraz can come through. 

Rafael Nadal, Barcelona, 2021

If Nadal does come through the second round, a potential third-round clash with Jannik Sinner could be next. 19-year-old Sinner will have work to do to get there, however. He faces Guido Pella in his first round match, and the winner of Jan-Lennard Struff and a qualifier in his second round. 

If Nadal and Sinner do meet it will be their second career meeting: Nadal defeated Sinner 7-6(4), 6-4, 6-1 in the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros last year. 

Nadal’s potential route to a sixth Madrid title (if seeds hold): 

  • R2 (after bye): Alcaraz or Mannarino 
  • R3: Sinner 
  • QF: Zverev 
  • SF: Thiem or Rublev 
  • F: Tsitsipas or Medvedev 

Trouble out of the gates for Medvedev as well 

It’s no secret that Daniil Medvedev is not a safe bet on the clay. One look at the Russian’s lifetime record of 10-18 on the surface will tell you that. Another tip-off is the fact that Medvedev routinely makes it a point to talk about how he simply doesn’t like the surface. 

“I’m not hiding this, I don’t like clay,” Medvedev said before Monte-Carlo. “Honestly, there’s nothing I like on clay. There’s always bad bounces, you’re dirty after playing. I really don’t enjoy playing on clay.”

The Russian didn’t get to take the court in Monte-Carlo because he tested positive for Covid-19, and that will complicate matters further for the world No. 3 as he looks to kick off his clay season in Madrid, where he has never won a main draw match. 

“He has been able to work for a week,” his coach Gilles Cervara said in an exclusive interview with Tennis Majors this week. “The first few days we kept a close eye on the reaction of his heart to effort, the reaction of his lungs, we were very attentive to his health sensations – headaches, difficulty in exertion – in order to adjust our training demand. You don’t pick up like that overnight after a week off, especially after contracting a little-known virus.”

Nadal Academy will love this first-rounder 

Two of the top talents from the Rafael Nadal Academy will square off in one of the best matchups of the first round at Madrid. Felix Auger-Aliassime, now coached by Toni Nadal, and Casper Ruud. Both are training fixtures at Nadal’s academy during the off-season and when they have large training blocks during the season. 

The Canadian won their only previous battle, way back in 2019 on hard court, in Miami. But it is the Norwegian who enters in better form on clay. Ruud, who owns a 52-27 record on clay at the moment, has reached at least the quarterfinals of all three events he has played on clay so far this spring. 

Auger-Aliassime, meanwhile, is 18-17 lifetime on clay and 2-2 on clay this season after his quarter-final appearance at Barcelona. 

Thiem returns – here’s how his draw looks 

Much has been made of the health – mental and otherwise – of Dominic Thiem over the last month. The Austrian made waves when he gave an interview with Der Standard and said he felt like he had fallen into a dark hole. 

“I spent 15 years chasing the big goal without looking left or right,” Thiem said. “In a way, some things have fallen by the wayside—the private life, dealing with other things, broadening the horizon. You have to do something for your head, for your brain. There was only tennis. I want to change that a bit.”

The Austrian will come back to tennis after what has been a fairly long hiatus by his standards. He last played at Dubai in mid-March, and Thiem has only competed in nine matches thus far in 2021. 

He will open accounts at Madrid with a second-round match against a qualifier (after a bye). Thiem is slated to face Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals (if the seeds hold) and Rafael Nadal in the semis. It will be interesting to see what kind of tennis the Austrian can muster in Madrid. 

Thiem dealt with a foot injury earlier in the season, but said he believed it wouldn’t be problematic. Then, two weeks ago, he pulled out of Belgrade with a knee injury. 

“2021 just doesn’t want to get going,” he wrote on his website at the time. “Unfortunately I will have to cancel my start at next week’s tournament in Novak Djokovic’s hometown Belgrade. My knee hurts and I went to see a doctor. It is not a big issue but I need to take care of it.”

27-year-old Thiem is 13-5 lifetime at Madrid and has reached at least the semi-finals in each of his last three appearances (runner-up in 2017 and 2018). 

Who’s hot?

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Monte-Carlo, 2021

Several in-form players (not named Nadal) will look to continue their momentum this week in Madrid: Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Monte-Carlo champion and Barcelona runner-up, has history in Madrid, where he was a finalist on his last appearance in 2019 (loss to Djokovic). Tsitsipas, in Medvedev’s lower half of the draw, could face Benoit Paire or Nikoloz Bashilashvili in his second match (after R1 bye).

Matteo Berretini, the Belgrade champion, is also in the lower half. The Italian could face Fabio Fognini in his first match after a bye.

Andrey Rublev, in Nadal’s half and Thiem’s quarter, is slated to face either Tommy Paul or Pedro Martinez in his first match (after a bye). Rublev is 6-2 on the clay this season (26-6 overall) with a final appearance at Monte-Carlo and a quarter-final at Barcelona, where he fell to Jannik Sinner.

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