The Mutua Madrid Open has been one of the biggest tournaments in the tennis calendar since the Masters moved from autumn’s indoor hard courts to the spring clay in 2009 where it joined forces with the new WTA1000 tournament—which is still one of the biggest events in the women’s calendar.
And the purpose-built Caja Mágica, one of the most striking venues in tennis, set the standard for what has become Spain’s biggest annual sports event. Little wonder it draws the cream of the tennis crop.
This year, the women’s draw boasts 16 of the world’s top 20, while the men’s event is without only three men ranked inside the top 40: world No2 Daniil Medvedev, following his hernia surgery, No6 Matteo Berrettini, with a hand injury, and No11 seed Taylor Fritz, whose late withdrawal gave a boost to Roberto Bautista Agut as seed No17.
The world No1 and three-time Madrid champion, Novak Djokovic, tops the draw, seeking his first title of the season in just his fourth event. He arrives after some playing some valuable come-back tennis on the Belgrade clay that got the machinery well-oiled for the big events that lie ahead.
In the short-term, those big events may include an opening match against Gael Monfils, followed one from Denis Shapovalov, Dominic Thiem or Andy Murray in a starry segment of the top quarter.
The defending Madrid champion, and five-time Masters winner, Alexander Zverev, is seeded No2, and faces some early challenges: first either Marin Cilic or Cordoba champion Albert Ramos-Vinolas, with either Seb Korda or the Dallas and Houston champion, Reilly Opelka, to follow.
Going deeper, his quarter-final could produce one of several quality unseeded men—Alex de Minaur, Santiago champion Pedro Martinez, or the impressive young Italian and No10 seed Jannik Sinner, unless No8 seed and Rotterdam champion Felix Auger-Aliassime survives this tricky segment that also holds Frances Tiafoe. Incidentally, Tiafoe and Korda play for a place in the Estoril final this weekend.
The Monte-Carlo champion and No4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas heads the other bottom quarter, and the former Madrid and Roland Garros runner-up may be one of the favourites for Madrid’s title. There are some trip-wires in his quarter, such as Grigor Dimitrov, Andrey Rublev, who beat Djokovic to the Belgrade final last week, and Diego Schwartzman—the Argentine lost to Tsitsipas in a testing Monte-Carlo quarter-final a fortnight ago—but the Greek did beat former Madrid champion Zverev in Monte-Carlo. Zverev also made an unexpectedly early exit from his home tournament in Munich this week.
But what of Spain’s hero, Rafael Nadal, seeded No3, and winner of this Masters four times from seven finals since it moved to clay? Only once in 15 appearances, dating back to its indoor iteration in 2007, has he fallen short of the quarters, so has notched up 52 match-wins. Even so, it is by far his least successful clay event compared with Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros: all of those are into double figures for titles.
What is more, there are two big factors at play this year. First, a quite outstanding start to 2022—21 straight wins that included the Australian Open and ended in the final of Indian Wells—ended abruptly with a rib fracture. So he missed the Monte-Carlo and Barcelona tournaments, but is making his return at his home Masters rather sooner than anticipated.
That he has picked up a tough quarter will not make that return a piece of cake. Unseeded Miomir Kecmanovic, age just 22, has been on a run of form since reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open, ranked 77, making the quarters in Rio, Santiago, Indian Wells and Miami, and pushing Djokovic to three tough sets in the Belgrade quarters. This week he made the Munich semis.
Assuming Nadal reaches the third round, he may play fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, runner-up in Barcelona, but beyond that is the man whose name is on everyone’s lips, 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz. The exciting young Spaniard, so often facing comparisons with the similarly precocious Nadal, has indeed won two clay titles this season, in Rio and Barcelona, but he scored still bigger success on the hard courts of Miami after losing to Nadal in the semis of Indian Wells.
He also, it so happens, lost to Nadal in his first Madrid appearance last year, ranked 120. But he has become a well-rounded, all-court, aggressive package since then, and compared with Nadal’s early years, more forward-moving, bigger serving and skilled on all surfaces—qualities that Nadal took far longer to develop. In Madrid of all places, this promised to be blockbuster meeting, unless the likes of unseeded Fabio Fognini, or No9 seed Cameron Norrie can stop the teenager.
For the winner who makes the semis? Well, there is the possibility of the first meeting between Nadal and Djokovic since that momentous win by the Serb to take the Roland Garros title a year ago.
But if some of these potential matches are not enough to whet the appetite, there is that Round 1 contest between two men attempting to put long injury absences behind them. Wild card Andy Murray, after joining up with Ivan Lendl for a third time, planned to miss the clay season in favour of grass-court preparation. He changed his mind, but the former Madrid champion must have heaved a sigh when he saw the name of his first opponent—Dominic Thiem.
Thiem had not played since last June after suffering three first-round losses due to a wrist injury. His return this April also ended in defeat, then he suffered the additional blow of Covid infection. How he will perform is therefore anyone’s guess, but this first meeting between two former Major and Masters champions since 2017 is sure to draw crowds.
As if facing one another was not enough, the winner will play Shapovalov, followed almost certainly by Djokovic. There are no easy draws, especially at Masters level, but this takes the biscuit for all concerned.
Draw 56; eight round-1 byes
Former champions in draw [since move to clay in 2009]: Nadal [4, plus 3 more finals], Djokovic , Zverev [2 and defending], Murray 
Former additional finalists in draw [since move to clay in 2009]: Tsitsipas, Thiem 
2022 clay winners in draw:
Buenos Aires, Casper Ruud
Santiago, Pedro Martinez
Marrakech, David Goffin [in qualifying draw]
Monte Carlo, Tsitsipas
Munich, finalists: Botic van de Zandschulp
Estoril, semi-finalists: Ramos-Vinolas, Tiafoe, Korda
Source: Sport Review