Let’s get ready to rummmmmble!
After three weeks of the ATP clay season where tennis’ prize fighters have managed to avoid each other like two heavyweight boxers in their prime, it’s finally time to slug it out in Madrid. Rafael Nadal will make his return to the ring after an injury-enforced absence, Novak Djokovic is raring to go again after battling his way to the final of the Serbia Open, Carlos Alcaraz comes in hot after winning the Barcelona Open, Stefanos Tsitsipas won Monte Carlo, then got knocked down by Alcaraz in Barcelona, but is back for more, and Alexander Zverev will be looking to find form as he defends his title.
It’s shaping up to be an intriguing tournament in the Spanish capital.
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Around none of the leading contenders is there more intrigue than Djokovic. Having missed most of the first quarter of the season, the world No. 1 spent over 10 hours on court in Belgrade, grinding his way to the final where he lost to Andrey Rublev. Djokovic said afterwards it was a positive week – and former world No. 1 Andy Roddick agreed – but raised some concern by saying his lack of fitness towards the end of the final was “worrisome”.
Djokovic also faded badly in the third set of his defeat to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in Monte Carlo, where his coach Goran Ivanisevic said he had been recovering from sickness. Will everything come together for Djokovic before the French Open? He will play either two or three events before Paris and will be hoping to get plenty more match practice under his belt in Madrid.
As Djokovic has been back on court, Nadal has been recovering over the last six weeks from a rib injury that hampered his chances of winning the Indian Wells final. The 21-time Grand Slam champion was 20-0 for the year before losing to Taylor Fritz, and does not sound like he is going to be in peak shape this week.
"I'm recovered from the injury but tennis and preparation is another story," he said.

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“Things are far from perfect, right now. I have to admit that. I'm taking these days almost like a preseason, doing double sessions every day.”
Nadal holds a 54-13 record in Madrid, where the high altitude and quicker conditions have not suited his game as well as another clay events. He has only won the tournament five times, the last in 2017, and given his fitness it would be a surprise if he went all the way on his return to action.
In Madrid last year Nadal swept aside Alcaraz for the loss of just three games in their first career meeting. A repeat scoreline seems unlikely if they meet again this week given Alcaraz’s stunning start to the season.
The 18-year-old has soared up to No. 9 in the world rankings on the back of three titles, including the Barcelona Open, which has for so many years been a tournament ruled by Nadal. Alex de Minaur came closest to stopping Alcaraz in the semi-finals and may still be kicking himself at the forehand he missed at 7-6 6-5 and 40-15 ahead. The match was on De Minaur’s racquet after a serve out wide opened up almost the entire court to put a short ball away, but Alcaraz scrambled to recover, adjusted brilliantly after over-running the next shot and hit a sliced forehand winner down the line.
Around 90 minutes later, Alcaraz was celebrating reaching the final. By the end of the day he was doing the traditional jump into the swimming pool to celebrate winning the tournament.

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Alcaraz is not just blowing opponents away with his power and well-disguised drop shots, he’s also thinking about his approach. Having battled past De Minaur in an energy-sapping three-hour match - the longest three-set match of the year on the ATP Tour – Alcaraz switched tact to outhit Pablo Carreno Busta in the final. The result: a straight-sets win and zero break points faced.
"It wasn't the match I expected," Carreno Busta said afterwards. "Carlos was playing a very aggressive game this afternoon and he was very effective. It was very difficult play against him today."
The Alcaraz hype-train was slowed a bit in Monte Carlo after he was beaten in his first match by Sebastian Korda, but it’s building up steam again and the prospect of Alcaraz facing either Nadal or Djokovic in Madrid - and then deep in the draw at French Open - is tantalising.
Tsitsipas will probably not be keen to face Alcaraz for a fourth time. All three of their meetings over the last eight months have been won by the Spaniard, including a gripping contest in the Barcelona Open quarter-finals. Alcaraz showed again that he has the power and the all-round game to beat Tsitsipas, who had asserted himself as one of the players to beat on clay this season with his victory at the Monte Carlo Masters. If Tsitsipas can maintain his form and perhaps avoid another meeting with Alcaraz he should still be in the running in Paris.
The same cannot be said with any certainty right now for Zverev, whose form has been patchy since his disqualification from the Mexican Open in February for attacking the umpire’s chair with his racquet. He lost early in Indian Wells, fell to Tsitsipas in straight sets in Monte Carlo, and was beaten 6-3 6-2 by 18-year-old Holger Rune as the top seed in Munich last week – “my worst match in the last five, six, seven years” said the German afterwards.
Zverev was very impressive in Madrid last year as he came through a tough draw to win the title, losing only one set as he beat Kei Nishikori, Dan Evans, Nadal, Dominic Thiem and Matteo Berrettini. He will need to find that level again if he is going to defend his title and then challenge in Rome and Paris.
On the undercard in Madrid there’s also a blockbuster first-round clash between two former Grand Slam champions looking to get back to their best shape: Andy Murray and Dominic Thiem. Murray switched his plans to play the tournament after initially saying he was going to sit the clay season out. Thiem, meanwhile, is on the comeback trail after nearly a year out with a wrist injury and won the only previous meeting on clay in Barcelona in 2017 (the head to head is level at 2-2).
Casper Ruud and Rublev, the fifth and sixth seeds, will also be looking to land a few blows and improve their stock.
Who’s going to lift the title? Who knows, but it should be fun finding out.
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