Madrid preview: Barty, Nadal headline stellar field

 - Reem Abulleil

Exciting match-ups in store at the Caja Magica as clay action resumes in the Spanish capital

Ashleigh Barty ©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

The world’s top players are descending upon the Spanish capital this week for the Mutua Madrid Open, where 1,000 valuable points are on offer on both the men’s and women’s sides.

As excitement ramps up for next month’s Roland-Garros, here is what you need to know about the clay-court showpiece at the Caja Magica, which is back on the calendar after being cancelled last season because of the pandemic.

The defending champions

Kiki Bertens is the reigning champion and has won 11 of her last 12 matches in Madrid, including a runner-up showing in 2018 and a title run in 2019. The Dutchwoman underwent Achilles surgery end of last season, which forced her to miss the start of 2021.

The world No 10 has yet to win a WTA singles match since her return to action in March but claimed a victory at the Billie Jean King Cup earlier this month. She’ll be opening her title defence on Thursday against 15-year-old Andorran wildcard Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva, who won the Australian Open junior title last year.

Novak Djokovic will not be defending his Madrid crown after announcing his withdrawal from the tournament on Wednesday. The world No 1’s clay-court campaign so far saw him fall to Dan Evans in the last 16 in Monte Carlo and to red-hot Russian Aslan Karatsev in the Belgrade semi-finals last week.

Barty headlines stellar women’s field

World No 1 Ashleigh Barty arrives to Madrid fresh off of capturing a tour-leading third title of the season, on the clay courts of Stuttgart.

The 2019 Roland-Garros champion has quickly found her feet on the red dirt and carries an 11-match winning streak on the surface into her tricky Thursday opener against American Shelby Rogers, who was a quarter-finalist at Roland-Garros in 2016.

Barty will be taking on Rogers for the fourth time this season (two of their three meetings in 2021 went to three sets) and she’ll need to navigate a quick turnaround after lifting the trophy in Stuttgart just four days ago.

“It seems this year we're going to be playing once a month,” Barty joked on Wednesday.

“Yeah, it's strange playing someone so regularly.

“It's always an exceptionally tough match against Shelby. She's proven that she knows how to play on a clay court, has had success at Roland-Garros before, and it's always a challenge. So I have to go out there, have to be very sharp from the start, and I have to try and bring the match back on my terms as quickly and as regularly as possible.”

Two-time Madrid champion Simona Halep is the No.3 seed and faces a daunting opener against in-form Spanish wildcard Sara Sorribes Tormo, who picked up her first WTA title in Guadalajara last month, before reaching the quarter-finals in Miami.

Simona Halep Madrid 2021©Souto / Mutua Madrid Open

Halep enjoys the conditions at the Caja Magica, where the ball tends to fly more due to the altitude in Madrid.

“I think it's about confidence and being in the past, like, confident and having a great game in these courts. I feel like every time I step on them I am good,” said the Romanian.

Reigning Roland-Garros champion Iga Swiatek kicks off her clay-court campaign this week in Madrid, looking to revive the form that saw her win a second career title in Adelaide in February.

Osaka back on the red dirt

Second-seeded Naomi Osaka is set to make her first clay appearance in two years and is keen to translate her great results on hard courts into success on the red dirt.

Naomi Osaka Madrid 2021©Souto / Mutua Madrid Open

The Japanese-Haitian star, whose four Grand Slam titles have all come on hard courts, is in search of a first tournament victory on clay. Osaka will be making her first appearance since Maria Sakkari snapped her 23-match winning streak in the Miami quarter-finals last month.

“I think for me, I do better when I don't stress myself out and tell myself that I have to win a tournament. But it's really hard to fight that feeling when you really want something,” Osaka told reporters in Madrid.

“At the end of the day, I haven't played a clay tournament in, like, two years. I haven't touched clay in two years either, so... I'm just going in here just trying to have fun and trying to build, I guess, match play for French.”

All eyes on Rafa and Stef

In the absence of the top-ranked Djokovic, Rafael Nadal will lead the field in Madrid now that he’s back to No.2 in the world, thanks to his title victory in Barcelona last Sunday.

Daniil Medvedev had leapfrogged Nadal in the rankings, and spent five weeks in the No.2 spot before the Spaniard reclaimed his position this week.

After losing to Andrey Rublev in the Monte-Carlo Masters earlier this month, Nadal claimed a confidence-boosting title in Barcelona (his 12th at the event), saving a match point before triumphing in three hours and 38 minutes over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final.

“I have room to keep improving. I was not perfect. I really believe that I can play better than what I am doing on clay and I really hope that the victory of today is going to help me to raise a little bit [my] level that I need today to fight for the next couple of events that I am going to play,” Nadal said after the final in Catalunya.

The 13-time Roland-Garros champion will be seeking a sixth career title in Madrid but he hasn’t lifted the trophy at the Caja Magica since 2017. Nadal’s most recent defeat at his home tournament came against Tsitsipas in the semi-finals in 2019.

Tsitsipas comes to Madrid as arguably THE in-form player on clay so far this season. The Greek world No.5 secured a maiden Masters 1000 trophy on the red dirt of Monte-Carlo before reaching the final in Barcelona. The 22-year-old, a semi-finalist at Roland-Garros last fall, had won 17 consecutive sets on clay before falling to Nadal in the Barcelona final.

Tsitsipas currently leads the ATP Race to Turin and holds a 350-point lead over second-placed Andrey Rublev.

According to the ATP, this is the first time since 2014 that a player outside the ‘Big Three’ of Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer has led the Race at this stage of the season.

New schedule

The Mutua Madrid Open will be held over a 10-day period for the first time this year with the women’s main draw commencing on Thursday April 29 and the men’s main draw action kicking off on Monday May 3.