With the 2013 French Open drawing closer, clay-court superstar Rafael Nadal looks like the favorite to win this week's Madrid Open. But a stacked field of competitors could spell an earlier-than-expected exit for the 11-time Grand Slam champion.
Below we'll highlight a trio of top-ranked players who could send Nadal home disappointed this May.
David Ferrer isn't the men's world No. 4 by coincidence, the Spanish veteran can beat anyone on his day.
Although Ferrer hasn't been able to get over the hump against Nadal on clay in recent years, the two could meet in a potential quarterfinal matchup, signaling the first real test on the draw for Rafa.
Ferrer has won 10 career clay-court singles titles over the course of his career and is coming off his first-ever semifinal appearance at the French Open last year. The 31-year-old certainly wouldn't be favored in a collision with Nadal, but the potential is there given he is among the elite group of men's players on this surface.
Ferrer should be in rhythm as well as he's coming off a berth in the final of the Portugal Open this past weekend.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal's rivalry has been well-documented over the years and remains one of the greatest rivalries in sports, highlighted by their memorable meeting in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
There's a good chance that Nadal and Federer could meet in the semifinals at Madrid this weekend, which would be better news for the Spaniard given his history against Fed. Not only is he 12-2 against the Swiss legend all time on clay, but he's taken two out of three against Fed at the Madrid Open.
After losing to Fed in the 2009 final at Madrid, Rafa beat him in the 2010 final and the 2011 semifinals.
The two met as recently as last March, at Indian Wells. Nadal had no trouble ousting Fed in straight sets, but following a two-month layoff, expect to see a re-energized Fed maneuvering on the red clay in 2013.
If there is a player capable of beating Nadal comfortably in Madrid this May, it's world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who ended Rafa's run at Monte Carlo last month, beating him in straight sets in the final in Monaco.
Which player should Nadal be the most concerned by in Madrid?
These two players have met 15 times on clay over the years, with Nadal taking 12. That number is a bit misleading, however, as Djokovic has taken three of the past six clay-court meetings between he and Nadal.
The two top-ranked players have met twice at the Madrid Open in the past, with Nadal defeating Djokovic in the semifinals in 2009 and the Serb returning the favor in the 2011 final.
Djokovic is one of few players who can match Nadal in terms of intensity and relentlessness. Djokovic fights for each and every point, and his patience gives him a huge boost against Rafa on clay.
If both can get through to the final on Sunday, it'll be must-see television and just the latest chapter in an intriguing rivalry.
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