Now fast approaching the business end of the tennis clay-court season, the best players in the world are in Madrid for the fourth Masters 1000 event of an already eventful 2012.
Thus far, Rafael Nadal has at times seemed head and shoulders above most of the opposition that has come his way, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic has looked as typically solid as ever in his dismantling of all that has been in his way and Roger Federer will be looking to start off his clay-court season with a bang.
The big talking point going into the tournament is the change from the traditional red clay surface to a blue clay. Not all of the players have been in support of the move, but opposition to it has not boiled over into any player withdrawals from the tournament.
The draws are relatively straightforward for the big three. Andy Murray pulled out of the tournament with injury, and taking his place behind Djokovic, Nadal and Federer as the next highest seed is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
My dark horses for the tournament would be Frenchman Gilles Simon, Argentine Juan Martin del Potro and Spaniard David Ferrer. I don't expect them to win, but they will cause some trepidation.
Play-wise, it remains to be seen how the players will react to the new court. Madrid has traditionally the fastest court of the four main clay-court events (Monte Carlo, Rome, Roland Garros), and conditions have tended to favor the flatter hitters, the big servers and those who tend to excel on hard courts. It is likely to remain the same despite the changes, but who knows for sure?
It's hard to pick a winner because of the unpredictability of the whole setup. The potential semifinal meeting between Djokovic and Federer is a tough call—we have no idea of Federer's form, and Djokovic has been hard to figure out in 2012.
Nadal, on the other hand, it has to be said, would have to be disappointed with anything less than a finals appearance. So we can guess one finalist, but that's about it.
This Madrid tournament has been shrouded in controversy, but its importance isn't lost on any of the key players. Playing at high altitude on an unfamiliar clay court in the stifling heat would grade (in my opinion) as one of the hardest tasks a tennis player can face.
A tournament win here is no guarantee of success at the French Open, but the way I see it, if you can win here, you can win anywhere.
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