The clay court season heads to Madrid this week, as the preparation for Roland Garros intensifies. Rafael Nadal won the event last year in his home country to make it five Madrid titles, and six wins for Spaniards since the competition began back in 2002.
Nadal is the strong favourite in a competitive field this year. The King of Clay has won 12 straight matches on his favoured surface, bringing him titles in Barcelona and Monte Carlo.
The rejuvenation of Nadal from his injury plagued years is one of the great sporting tales, he has shown no signs of stopping. The relentless rallies are as tiresome for opponents as ever. It is very hard to see past the Spaniard if he remains fit for the entirety of the event.
The draw is littered with household names. The 2016 champion, a certain Novak Djokovic, is a shadow of his former self. He holds a painful 2-2 record on the clay this season, including a defeat to world number 140, Martin Klizan, in Barcelona last week.
There were more positive signs for the Serbian in Monte Carlo. Eventual defeat to Dominic Thiem was disappointing, but he at least competed with the Austrian and saw off Borna Coric in straight sets.
There’s little value in backing Djokovic in Madrid, however. His form is indifferent at best, and each performance makes the tennis world wonder if we will ever see him as a top five player again.
Speaking of Thiem, the world number seven has had a mixed time himself. After beating Djokovic in Monte Carlo, he won just two games as he was swept aside by Nadal.
World number 63, Stefanos Tsitsipas, then beat him in straight sets in Barcelona. The 24-year-old is at decent value to win the tournament. He has the talent, but he will need a favourable draw if he is to go all the way to the final in the Spanish capital.
The highest ranked player not named Nadal is young Alexander Zverev. The 21-year-old is widely considered as the future of the men’s game, assuming that Nadal and Roger Federer retire at some point.
The German has had a decent, if not spectacular, season to date. Beating the veteran Richard Gasquet in Monte Carlo, however, was quickly undone by a battling three-set defeat to Kei Nishikori.
Zverev could get a good draw thanks to his ranking. The strength of the competition this year, though, means that you can only avoid a big name for so long. I like Zverev to win the competition, and I think he probably offers the best value away from Nadal.
Marin Cilic, like Zverev, suffered defeat to Nishikori in Monte Carlo. Cilic is no more than an outsider for this competition for me. Of the top ranked players, Juan Martin del Potro is the real standout.
The Argentinian, as we have frequently seen, can beat absolutely anybody in the world when he’s at his best. Whether that can stretch to Nadal on clay, I’m not so sure, but he might have the best chance of anyone in the competition.
The chasing pack are closely matched. It is an immensely tough one to call if Nadal is injured or eliminated, but otherwise I struggle to see anyone taking a set off the Spaniard, let alone winning the match.
Should that happen, del Potro and Gregor Dimitrov are my two picks.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*