Coming off an impressive win at the ATP Barcelona Open last weekend, Rafael Nadal enters next week's outdoor clay-court tournament in Madrid as the favorite to win another title in Spain's capital city.
Nadal has won this tournament twice in the past, most recently in 2010 when he defeated Roger Federer in straight sets. The 11-time Grand Slam champion also won this event back in 2005 as a teenager when it was still an indoor hard-court tournament.
Obviously, Nadal's strength on clay makes him the popular pick at the Manzanares Park Tennis Center this May, but it's his play of late that suggests this year's tournament will be a one-man show directed by the Spanish superstar.
Following a disappointing and somewhat shocking loss to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the final at Monte Carlo two weeks ago, Nadal looked re-energized in Barcelona, wiping out five opponents, all in straight sets, to claim his eighth career title at the event and 54th career singles title overall.
He overcame Raonic's monster serve in the semifinals, dropping just four games in two sets, and broke Almagro's spirit in the first set of the final after battling back from an early 3-0 hole to win the opening frame 6-4.
Not only is Nadal playing well at the right time, but he has plenty of motivation to draw on at this year's Madrid Open. Prior to being bounced in the third round by compatriot Fernando Verdasco a year ago, Nadal was taken out in straight sets by rival Djokovic in the 2011 final.
And though the statistics for Nadal haven't been incredibly eye-popping thus far in the European clay-court season—18th in clay-court first-serve points won and 27th in clay-court break points converted—the simple task of getting a ball past the relentless grinder on the slow-playing clay has proved to be one of the most improbable for his opponents.
He may not win every service game, but it doesn't seem to matter who is putting the ball in play because once the point is started, it's advantage Nadal. Constantly facing those heavy topspin forehands, opponents are more likely to commit unforced errors and start pressing against Nadal on clay, searching and hoping for winners that just aren't there.
In addition to the physical challenges Nadal presents, the mental strain of going up against him on his favorite surface only adds to the uphill battle most of his opponents face. Simply knowing that nothing will come easy and that Nadal isn't afraid to play a point for days can be enough to demoralize a player before the match even begins.
That is why Nadal was able to dominate the way he did in Barcelona last week, and why he must be considered the hands-down favorite to conquer Madrid this month.
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