Nadal searches for form and Federer returns to the clay in Madrid

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Calvin H Warner previews the Madrid Open for The Tennis Review- will Rafa Nadal find his form and how will Federer fare on his return to the Clay?N

For the past decade at least, there is no safer bet in tennis than Rafa on clay. He owns eleven titles each at Roland Garros, Monte Carlo and Barcelona (the latter of which has named its center court in his honor). Rafa is no slouch at other clay events – eight titles at the Rome Masters and five in Madrid. Each of these totals is an all-time record. Naturally, many fans and commentators believe that Nadal is the greatest clay court player ever.

But every Achilles has his heel – Rafa has always been more vulnerable on other surfaces. Compare his eleven RG trophies to only one in Melbourne, or his eleven Monte Carlo crowns to zero in Miami. The strongest criticism of a campaign to name Nadal the GOAT is surely the fact that he has leaned so heavily on this one-surface specialty, earning only 23 of his 80 titles on a surface other than clay.

This year has dealt Rafa some disappointing results: runover by Djokovic Down Under, match points squandered against Kyrgios in Mexico, a withdrawal from Indian Wells followed by skipping Miami completely. But none of this is particularly stunning; Rafa’s return to the clay swing is like a knight retreating into an impenetrable fortress. Here are two stats that blow my mind. 1) Nadal has only lost twice at the clay slam: in 2009 to Soderling and 2015 to Djokovic. 2) Nadal has never lost back-to-back matches on clay. If this doesn’t illustrate invincibility, I don’t know what does.

So…what the heck is going on in 2019? Nadal was knocked out in the semis in Monte Carlo by Italian Fabio Fognini. Rafa supporters will be quick to point out that Fognini is a clay veteran and more dangerous than his career hardware suggests, but the loss is an upset by any measure. Rafa followed up this defeat with a semifinals exit in Barcelona (yes, on the very court that bears his name) to Dominic Thiem. True, Thiem is the heir-apparent to the Roland Garros throne and has bested Nadal at least once on clay in four consecutive years. But the clay was supposed to be Nadal’s proud march to Roland Garros, not a series of early exits.  

The more interesting question is also the more enigmatic: will Roger Federer be a factor? The Swiss has forgone the French Open now for three straight years. He only holds one title there, from ’09 when he only had to go through Soderling. The longer rallies and physical requirements of clay aren’t well suited for Roger’s style of quick points nor for his advancing age.

This explains why Federer has opted to make his return to the dirt in Madrid, a tournament known for its high altitude. This should help the balls fly faster, which will be to Federer’s benefit. Roger has won three Madrid titles (although one of those years was played on hard courts), and should feel confident that he can do damage here. 

Nadal would still be a heavy favorite in a clay-court tussle, but more so than any rivalry in sports, Fed and Rafa are two halves of one whole. When they take the court, anything is possible. The two haven’t met on clay since Rome in 2013, where Rafa trounced the maestro in straights. Roger has only beat Rafa twice ever on the surface, but the most recent such win came a decade ago at this very tournament in Spain’s capital city.  

Fed and Nadal are the most interesting storylines going into this event, but they aren’t the only ones.

  • World #1 Djokovic is playing
  • Del Potro is returning
  • Félix Auger-Aliassime received a wild card
  • David Ferrer will be bidding farewell to the tour in his final tournament
  • Alexander Zverev is the defending champion but appears to be a nonfactor
  • 2018 finalist Thiem is looking to take the next step
  • Stan Wawrinka is healthy and playing well

Madrid will be an interesting snapshot of the field on the way to Roland Garros. Despite the promising newcomers and weathered veterans in the field, I do expect Rafa to emerge victorious from La Caja Mágica just as he has done so many times before. 

                                                                                                    -Calvin H. Warner

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Calvin H Warner

Calvin H Warner is an avid writer and tennis Fan. Find out more about him at

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