Here comes the 2014 Mutua Madrid Open. If Spain's Masters 1000 tournament was a work of art, it would be a Picasso painting in all its bizarre angles and distortions. La Caja Magica is expensive but insecure, surrounded by fancy high-rise seating that lacks a soul.
It's a tournament with little identity, let alone tradition. In 24 years, it has changed its court surfaces from carpet (1990-97) to indoors hard courts (1998-2008), from red clay (2009-11) to blue clay (2012) and back to red clay (2013-14). It's easier to keep up with the Kardashians.
Madrid's lineage is equally bizarre as it traces its tournament roots to Stockholm, Sweden; Essen, Germany; Stuttgart, Germany; Madrid Arena and La Caja Magica. It's a mutt, but it's prosperous. Billionaire businessman and former player Ion Tiriac seems determined to make this work and so it goes.
Madrid is a wild card with its allegedly slow clay surface, but its thin air helps players hit through the court. It seems to favor nobody in particular. Only Boris Becker has ever defended his title, winning the first two years of the tournament's existence (1990-91).
Who can figure it out? It's a bingo card played with random hieroglyphs. And the final element in all of this unpredictability is the 2014 results on the ATP tour.
Who is the real favorite to win the title?
Kei Nishikori may as well be the favorite, right? After all, he just took Barcelona. He runs like the Flash and has great hand-eye coordination, seeing the ball early and creating angles. His Steam racket will generate greater pace in the high altitude.
Last year, he defeated Roger Federer in the third round, so he will look forward to more big conquests. Who is going to stop him?
The answer could be Grigor Dimitrov. The Bulgarian blew through Bucharest and is itching to climb into the top 10. Last year, he eliminated Novak Djokovic in the second round but fell to Stanislas Wawrinka one match later. He wants to be elite, so here is his chance to take another step.
His forehand must be deadly. He strikes a heavy ball and has put-away power. It's just that he sometimes falls head-over-heels with his lovely backhand. Sure, the backhand is beautiful, but it is more often short and occasionally feeble.
Dimitrov's talent is there, but will it wed with consistency? If so, this tournament is his.
Then again, we must remember Andy Murray, even if nobody is talking about him these days. The 2008 Madrid champion might wish the tournament would go with retro hard courts, but if he wins an important clay-court tournament, Madrid figures to be his best shot.
Murray's groundstrokes are better suited for fast courts that allow him to counterpunch with more power, but he is a wonderful retriever and is gritty tough. Still, the key will be his offensive mentality. If he stands too far back and looks to hit a lot of topspin, better clay-court players will rub him out. If he comes in to flatten more shots, he will not need to rely as much on defensive sliding, which is hardly his strong suit. He needs to forget he is playing on clay.
The Big Three
Federer would love to close out a Masters 1000 tournament after getting edged-out at Indian Wells and Monte Carlo. And as far as clay venues go, Madrid has been fairly good to Federer. He was the 2012 winner on the quirky and slippery blue clay, and he was the inaugural red clay winner in 2009, defeating Rafael Nadal in straight sets.
He will also prefer the thinner air, which might be the difference in hitting past Wawrinka, or at least not giving him the time to wind up and take big cuts. He could likewise push more pace against Djokovic and Nadal and find it easier to back up his serve.
If the tournament turns topsy turvy, Federer might be the consistent choice and the most adaptable player to the draw and unpredictable conditions. It wouldn't be surprising to see him hold the strange-looking scepter trophy.
And then there is the matter of Djokovic's wrist. It's a good sign that he has not pulled out of Madrid, but until he can prove that the wrist will be painless and injury proof, there will be questions about how far he can advance.
If he is healthy, Djokovic will be at the center of several intriguing rivals. Whether he faces Murray, Wawrinka, Federer or Nadal, he is an interesting matchup and a tough champion. He is adept on clay and could also respond well in Madrid, though he has only won this title in 2011.
Ah, Nadal. Two clay-court losses in 2014 has launched millions of conversations about what is wrong with the clay king. But Madrid is a brand new opportunity, even if not his favorite stomping grounds. He has been a five-time finalist with titles in 2005 (hard courts), 2010 and 2013, but he will have a difficult time becoming only the second man to win back-to-back titles here.
Nadal does prefer to stay deep behind the court, but he will have to move in a couple meters if he does not want his opponents to execute more winners and control the pace. Physically, Nadal should be fine, but he is also a rhythm player, and he would rather execute a premeditated attack.
Lately, his opponents have produced more bold and unpredictable tactics, and even if this does not rattle Nadal, he is nonetheless still trying to capture his swagger with a big title.
Hot Man Stan
Is Wawrinka the favorite? Last year he was a finalist, although he got drubbed by Nadal. This year, he is a different player, putting to rest all of his former demons in just the last few months. He has defeated the Big Three, won a major and a Masters 1000 title. The disappointments of being a journeyman have been shattered to pieces.
The Swiss Ironman is very comfortable on clay, even if not fleet-footed. His movement is efficient, and he wins on faster surfaces than Madrid. He's also incredibly difficult to attack right now. His forehand is not leaking but rather proving to be a strength.
The backhand may be an even greater weapon of the mind. Think of how much his opponents will be pressing to hit deeper and more carefully to that wing. His growing reputation could create more errors, and his experience with winning big is only growing.
So who is the favorite?
This needs to be settled on the courts.