The Mutua Madrid Open has plenty of reasons to celebrate this season, but one of the most important is the tenth anniversary of the tournament’s move to the Caja Mágica and the red clay for the first time in 2009. Since then the Ion Tiriac trophy has become an object of desire for the big 4, a prize that has been exclusively available to four players in all editions of the tournament played on clay: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
The Spaniard, apart from being the defending champion this year, dominates the roll of honour with five crowns (2005, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2017), the Swiss has three trophies in his cabinet (2006, 2009, 2012), while the Serb (2011, 2016) and the Scot (2008, 2015) have two apiece. Between them, the four players have strung together ten consecutive victories. To find a different name on the trophy you have to go back to 2007, when it was still played on hard court and David Nalbandian managed to topple Federer in the final.
The Argentine laid the foundations, but so far nobody on clay has been able to follow the example he set indoors. The Manolo Santana Stadium is a fortress and it seems you have to have held the world number one spot if you are to lift the trophy to the heavens in Madrid. Its status as an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament has earned it a select list of winners, and consolidated it as a world-class venue. But in 2018 there are plenty of candidates waiting for their chance to bring the four-sided dominance to an end once and for all.
The Caja Mágica is a box of magic, but it has also been a box of surprises season after season. Beyond the authority of the champions, the Madrid clay has seen feats from plenty of outsiders who have presented the world with their applications for recognition of their limitless potential. Here, Nick Kyrgios blew the roof off in 2015 in a dramatic match that went his way after three tiebreaks against Federer (6-7, 7-6, 7-6). Grigor Dimitrov, back in 2013 and in the top 30, also saw off Djokovic in the second round in another thriller that went to a decider (7-6, 6-7, 6-3).
The venue has also provided the stage for other members of the Armada to shine. In 2012 Fernando Verdasco became the only player in the history of the tournament to prevent his compatriot Nadal from reaching at least the semi-finals in a frenetic clash that lasted for more than three hours (6-3, 3-6, 7-5). Performances from players like Roberto Bautista Agut in 2014 and Pablo Andújar in 2013, who had the chance to fight for a place in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open are etched in the memories of the home fans. Both players fell to the eventual champion in that round.
Nadal gunning for a sixth
There are few players in the history of this sport that can boast having won the same tournament more times than you can count on the fingers of one hand. High among those elite few is the name of Nadal, who at the Mutua Madrid Open will be attempting to achieve the titanic feat for the fifth time in his career. This year the player from Manacor will be bidding for his sixth crown –the fifth on the Madrid clay- a figure he has already reached at the French Open, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome.
For all these reasons, whenever stained red by the clay, the 16-time Grand Slam champion starts every season and any tournament on this surface as the hot favourite for the title, and even more so at home in front of his people. This time, he also arrives as champion and will attempt to defend the crown, something that he managed in 2013-14. But he is the only player in the history of the tournament who has won it two years on the trot. In 2018 he hopes to grow that legend.
The bigger picture
The fact is that beyond the strong candidacie of Nadal, a priori the list of alternatives is short. The pre-tournament fitness of always-dangerous players such as Novak Djokovic, who has reached at least the semi-finals in his last two participations, and Stan Wawrinka, who also knows what it is to play in a Mutua Madrid Open final (2013), remains unknown. Only their physical condition will determine if they could join the ranks of the favourites, even though just their names on paper are enough to intimidate.
But if there is one thing that sets the Caja Mágica apart, it is its unique conditions, a favourite stomping ground for the best servers on tour and an enclosure that is kind to those who have success on other clay venues. Such is the case of players like Tomas Berdych. The Czech has made a name for himself at the tournament, producing some legendary moments like the 2012 final and reaching three semi-finals (2006, 2013 and 2015), and then there is Milos Raonic, who has always entertained with tight matches and two quarter-finals (2015, 2016).
Another player with a similar profile is Juan Martín Del Potro. The Argentine, who is back in the top 10, is riding a wave of form and still has a thorn in his side from 2009 (lost to Federer) and 2012 (bowed out to Berdych), when he came within a match of the final. The venom of his forehand is back to threaten the tour. Marin Cilic is also a player to watch out for, this year he has reached his highest ATP ranking at number three in the world. It is true that his results on clay, in general, and particularly in Madrid, have always been modest, but the Croat has stepped up his game and the altitude of the Spanish capital could prove to be his best ally as he makes an assault on the final rounds for the first time in his career.
Not to be forgotten either are two more versatile players that are just a dangerous; Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev. The Bulgarian has shed his moniker of eternal promise by finally delivering as champion of the Nitto ATP Finals and is capable of taking on the best in the world on the big stage. For his part, the young, 21-year-old German reached the quarter-finals in his first participation in Madrid last year, leaving Verdasco, Cilic and Berdych in his wake. Now he is back with more experience and a place in the top 10.
Nobody can forget Dominic Thiem, for many experts he is the one destined to take the clay baton from Nadal when he hangs up his racquet. At the Mutua Madrid Open he took on the Spaniard in 2017’s heart-stopping final and he was the only one who managed to beat him in last year’s clay swing in Rome (24-1). The same applies to David Goffin, who has been among the best ten in the world, versatile and polyvalent, increasingly competitive against the top players. Few will forget the tennis he produced in last year’s quarter-finals, where only an immaculate Nadal was able to stop him in his tracks.
Finally, what of the Armada? Do any of them stand a chance? The answer is that practically all of them do. Spanish players and clay go hand in hand, and names like Pablo Carreño, Albert Ramos Viñolas, Roberto Bautista and David Ferrer are ready to produce big results. Nor should we forget the added motivation of playing at home for Madrid native Fernando Verdasco or future tournament director Feliciano López. All of these ingredients will make the Mutua Madrid Open a perfect tournament once again.