ATP / WTA: Madrid not ready to say goodbye to Rafa

Emotions run high as Spaniard lives to fight another day

Rafael Nadal / Madrid 2024©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

We’re at the halfway mark at the Madrid Open, where the world’s best players have gathered for the first clay 1000 event of the season.

Here’s a look at the major talking points so far in the Spanish capital.

Nadal gets his revenge

With every step Rafael Nadal takes on court, the Caja Magica erupts in cheer and applause.

Royals, sports stars, and celebrities have turned up for the Spaniard this week, which has served as both a homecoming – having missed the event last year – and a farewell party all wrapped into one.

Nadal is playing Madrid Open for one last time and neither the players, nor the fans, are ready to say goodbye just yet.

With his entire family in attendance, including his wife María Francisca and his son Rafael Jr, Nadal rolled through his opener against 16-year-old American Darwin Blanch, before showing glimpses of his vintage form to dismiss No.10 seed Alex de Minaur, avenging his defeat to the Australian in Barcelona the previous week.

“It was a great test, and now let's see how I wake up tomorrow,” said Nadal, who has been cautious about making any bold statements about his body, given the numerous issues he has been dealing with.

“I never will have the chance to thank enough all the people here in Madrid for everything that they gave to me during all my tennis career, no, and today was a very emotional one.”

Next up for the Mallorcan is Argentina’s Pedro Cachin. Arrangements have been in place for a special ceremony to pay tribute to Nadal after his last match in Madrid. He’ll do everything possible to postpone that moment until finals weekend.

Rafael Nadal, Madrid Open 2024, third round©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Alcaraz seeking a threepeat

Two-time defending champion Carlos Alcaraz was happy to report that he’s pain-free but admits he still isn’t hitting his forehand at 100 per cent due to the forearm injury that forced him to miss both Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

The No.2 seed got through his opening two rounds unscathed, dropping no more than three games per set en route to the last 16.

The good news is that he seems fit and in solid form. The tricky news is that he has a rematch of last year’s final in his next round against Jan-Lennard Struff, who is coming off a maiden title run in Munich and is on a six-match winning streak on clay.

‘Sinner’s the favourite’

On the opposite end of the draw lies Alcaraz’s best of frenemy Jannik Sinner, who is the top seed at a Masters 1000 tournament for the first time in his career, in the absence of Novak Djokovic.

This is just Sinner’s third appearance in Madrid and first since 2022. He has never made it past the last 16 in the Spanish capital and said ahead of the tournament the conditions require some getting used to. The Italian was ruthless against his compatriot Lorenzo Sonego in his opener on Saturday though, dropping just three games in a 69-minute rout.

“He's not used to play here in Madrid. I think he didn't play in this tournament since 2022, and he didn't play so much here in Madrid. So I don't know how it's going to be, his game, with the altitude. But his first round was impressive,” said Alcaraz on Sunday when assessing Sinner’s chances.

“Of course, I see him as a favourite player to win every tournament he goes.

“I'll try to play my best tennis. I'll try to don't let him winning more titles, but it is difficult right now,” the Spaniard added with a smile, acknowledging Sinner’s superior 26-2 win-loss record and three-title haul so far this season.

WTA top seeds in control

The leading ladies of the WTA tour have enjoyed a drama-free opening week at the Caja Magica, with all top five seeds advancing to the last-16 stage.

Iga Swiatek has dropped just seven games through her opening two matches, as she continues her search for a first title in Madrid – the only big tournament on clay she has yet to capture.

A finalist in the Spanish capital 12 months ago, the world No.1 has a tricky fourth-round clash on Monday against home favourite Sara Sorribes Tormo.

Defending champion Aryna Sabalenka has been searching for consistency ever since she retained her Australian Open title in January and coming back to Madrid could be just what the doctor ordered for the world No.2.

A two-time winner in the Spanish capital, Sabalenka squeezed past Magda Linette and American lefty Robin Montgomery to punch her ticket to a tricky last-16 meeting with Miami and Charleston champion Danielle Collins.

If Sabalenka wants to keep her Madrid crown, she must halt Collins’ 15-match winning streak!

Third-seeded Coco Gauff won the first 17 consecutive games of her campaign in Madrid, delivering a double bagel to Arantxa Rus before defeating Dayana Yastremska 6-4, 6-1. The US Open champion faces fellow American Madison Keys for a place in the quarter-finals.

The 20-year-old Gauff has made the quarters or better at five tournaments this season.

Speaking of consistency, world No.4 Elena Rybakina has kept up her red-hot streak by picking up a sixth consecutive victory on clay. The Stuttgart champion said ahead of the tournament she’s been making adjustments in order to incorporate more topspin in her game, which she feels is essential on clay, but more importantly in the altitude conditions in Madrid.

Progress for Jabeur

Tunisian 2022 Madrid champion Ons Jabeur has won back-to-back matches for the first time this year to move into the last 16 at the Caja Magica.

The No.8 seed has struggled physically and mentally so far this season but fought hard to claim a pair of three-set wins over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova and Leylah Fernandez to set up a fourth-round showdown with 2017 Roland-Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko.

“It's nice to win two matches in a row, for sure,” said Jabeur with a chuckle on Saturday.

“I think the most important thing is the way I won these matches. I feel like the level is getting better every day. I'm just enjoying playing and enjoying, like, some moments even, like, very, very tough on the court.

“Obviously when you're missing some matches, it's always tougher to close or get the break point, but hopefully will get much better in the next ones. It needs to be much better for the next ones. I have no choice, I think.”

Teens making moves

One year after her breakthrough run to the fourth round in Madrid as a 15-year-old ranked 194 in the world, Mirra Andreeva is back to the very same stage but as a top-50 player with 12 months of added experience.

She battled past Taylor Townsend and No.29 seed Linda Noskova in her opening two rounds before upsetting reigning Wimbledon champion and No.7 seed Marketa Vondrousova in straight sets.

Andreeva has a local in her corner in the form of Conchita Martinez, who is coaching her on a trial basis, and next takes on an in-form Jasmine Paolini for a place in the quarter-finals.

Another teenager looking to follow in Andreeva’s footsteps is 18-year-old Czech Sara Bejlek, who is through to the fourth round on her WTA 1000 main draw debut.

Bejlek has won five matches at the Caja Magica this week, through qualifying and main draw, and will face a top-20 player for the first time in her career when she takes on Rybakina in the last 16 on Monday.