The Madrid Masters starts this week and will be quickly followed by the
We're in the home straight for the French Open and these two
Masters tournaments are going to give us a better idea about who is in the best
shape to win this second Grand Slam of the year.
Let's start with a look at the Rafael Nadal versus Novak Djokovic
Everybody is waiting for this duel between Djokovic, the most
impressive guy of this start of the season, and Nadal, who is still the boss on
clay having won back-to-back titles in Monte Carlo
The Serb was smart to avoid facing Rafa on clay earlier, skipping
Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He knows how much the result of
their first encounter will matter in terms of his French Open chances. So he decided to take
his time and return to clay at Belgrade, where he won. He has gained new confidence
before going into the fight with Nadal, the clay monster.
The Spaniard was quick to adapt to the surface and get back to
winning ways after struggling earlier in the season. He is now
reassured. Even not playing to his best standards, he was still good enough to
beat every opponent in front of him.
Nevertheless he knows that, in order to beat Djokovic, he has to
play better than this. The depth of his shots isn't optimal and the Serb
will take advantage of any flaw. It appears that Rafa has lost
confidence - and so efficiency - on his backhand. So here are the two areas he
has to work on if he wants to record a win over Djokovic, who is in full gear
and completely focused.
Roger Federer didn't reassure us at all on clay, a surface he
mastered in his best years but which has appeared to magnify his struggles since.
His footwork leads him to commit more mistakes on his
backhand but also to lose efficiency on his forehand because he takes the ball later than before. On clay, which slows the ball down, his serve becomes
also less decisive. We've noticed him going more for trickiness these days,
with the kick serve for example. Even if his game is still enough to beat most
of the field, he looks way more fragile against players like Andy Murray, Juan
Martin Del Potro, Djokovic and Nadal.
Robin Soderling is also struggling. Disturbed by a foot injury, he's
struggled to get back to his best level. Even if he likes clay because it
gives him enough time to move and organise himself, it's also an issue for him
because of his footwork, especially with the foot injury.
So he's not arriving in Madrid
in the best condition but will hope to find some encouragement heading towards
The guy who is coming back very strong those days is Del Potro. Having
been forced to take a full year off with injury, he's slowly but surely coming
back to his best level. He could become a serious outsider for the
Murray is an
enigma. Absolutely non-existent since his loss in the Australian Open final, he
jumped back in the game at Monte Carlo, enjoying a good tournament and being
the only one to push Nadal to a third set. So he seems to be back on the right
path sooner than last year when he struggled basically until Wimbledon.
But the Scot is capable of being the best and the worst. It is tough
to predict anything with him until he stabilises his team (he split with coach
Alex Corretja not long ago and still hasn't replaced him). And he injured his
elbow at Monte Carlo, withdrawing from Barcelona and only making his comeback this week in Madrid.
We will also get the opportunity in Madrid
and Rome to see
more of Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic. They'll get the chance to play
against the best players and to see how far from or close they are to them - and the work they
still have to do to compete with them. Over on the women's side Victoria Azarenka is the in-form player.
We've been waiting for some time for her to develop and she is on a roll right now since her triumph in Miami.
Clay should really suit her, with the topspin she can put on her forehand and her great footwork. However she's injury-prone and still pretty sensitive. After Madrid and Roma, we'll know all we need in terms of whether we can picture her with the trophy in Paris.
Caroline Wozniacki is the other in-form player of the moment: she's winning nearly every event she's entering. She now only lacks a Grand Slam trophy. She'll be in prime position for the French Open if she can clinch the victory in Madrid and Rome because of the huge confidence it will give her.
Both Francesca Schiavone and Samantha Stosur, finalists at last year's Roland Garros, are struggling at the moment. We thought they would rediscover their inspiration now that they are back on the clay - but it hasn't happened. They have two tournaments left in order to find the confidence necessary to win the French Open.
It is impossible to conclude without talking about Aravane Rezai, winner in Madrid last year with victories over Justine Henin, Klara Zakopalova, Andrea Petkovic, Jelena Jankovic, Lucie Safarova and Venus Williams. She is going through a tough time, which have only got worse with her first-round loss in Madrid on Sunday.
Now coached by Alexia Dechaume-Balleret, she's facing the three most difficult months of her season where she'll have to defend about 80 per cent of her WTA points. She will have to deal with a lot of pressure. In Paris, she won't be under the same pressure - so maybe she will be able to do better.