The talk in Madrid is already on the "dream-final" between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, where one winning streak will have to come to an end. But predicting the two of them in the final as a given, it a bit premature as both of them would willingly agree to.
As the Madrid draw came out, it was hard not to notice how close the two names Rafael Nadal, world No. 1 and the king of clay and Juan Martin Del Potro, the sleeping giant, were to one another. And now, it is happening. It is unusual to have an third-round matchup of this magnitude in a Masters tournament, but the more reason to cherish it. To me, it looks like the most interesting matchup on clay so far in 2011.
So far, the Scot Andy Murray, a player not exactly known for his clay court proficiency, has been the only player to challenge the dominant Spaniard on clay by taking a surprising second set in Monte Carlo and being pretty close at taking the first two, before waning in the third. David Ferrer has met Rafa in the finals of both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but as good as he is, one always suspects the result is determined beforehand when the two meet on clay. Ferrer simply does not have enough weapons to trouble Nadal.
The same cannot be said for Juan Martin Del Potro.
We all know his credentials—the deep penetrating ground strokes, possibly hit with more force than any other player on tour. That forehand of his is massive and is reported to make a very special sound no other player, save Milos Raonic occasionally on serve, produces. Moreover, his height allows him to deal better with Nadal's high bouncing spinning forehands than most other players. And he has the calm, determined mentality of a winner—producing his best when he needs to and a master in edging out the close ones.
After being sidelined for almost the entire 2010 with a wrist injury, Del Potro goes into the match with a very decent 25-6 match record for the year and an impressive 23-4 post the Australian Open. Ranking wise he has shot from 485th post the Australian Open to 32 now. Now that is a jump.
However, his opponent cannot complain much about his 2011 campaign either. Nadal is still the world No. 1 and he's 29-4 for the year. More importantly though, he's on a 35-match winning streak on the red dirt and has not lost since Robin Söderling gave us the upset of this millennium in the 2009 French Open.
Their head-to-head does not give us much to go on. Nadal leads 5-3 and 1-0 on clay, but their first three matches were in 2007, when Del Potro was a young 18-year-old prospect and hardly a household name. And two of Del Potro's victories came while Nadal was half-injured (does that guy ever lose, when he's healthy?). They have actually already met in 2011 on the slow hard court in Indian Wells, where Nadal prevailed 6-4, 6-4 after being 4-1 down in the first, but though Del Potro looked decent going into the match, he is and was still coming back from injury—getting closer to his full potential day by day.
In Indian Wells, Nadal turned the match around by putting his forehands ever higher to Del Potro's backhand, so being close to 2 meter, or 6'6 to be precise is not necessarily enough against the guy who produces more spin than any other player in history. The bounce is high in Madrid, but given the altitude it is also fast and on sunny days it can resemble hard court play.
So, who do we favour?
The odds are naturally heavy stacked on Nadal. He has only lost once this early in a clay court tournament since 2005 and lost a mere four matches on the surface since April 2005 and won more than 150. Now that is a good winning percentage.
Nevertheless, if there is any clay court Nadal is vulnerable on, it is Madrid. Djokovic pushed him to the limit in 2009 losing a four-hour instant classic match in the third set tie-break, before Federer finished him off in the final.
Last year, Federer pushed Nadal again though Nadal sealed off a 6-4, 7-6 victory—but only won one more point than Federer in the match. Mind you, 2010 was by far Federer's worst clay season since somewhere around 2002-04.
Add to that, that Delpo looks to be getting close to be back at the astonishing level that saw him overpower Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in the US Open semifinal. He comes from a fresh tournament victory in Estoril, beating the clay-court specialist Fernando Verdasco 6-2, 6-2 in the final and defending French Open runner-up Söderling 6-4, 7-5 in the quarters.
Though he injured his hip a bit in his first-round Madrid match against Mikhail Youzhny, he thrashed once upon a time great prospect Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-0 in the second round. Unfortunately, I only saw the highlights and there he looked both fine and very commanding, plummeting forehands past a helpless Cilic.
He is the underdog going into the match and has nothing to lose. A win would tell the rest of the tennis world that he is back as a force to be reckoned with - that is, if they have not already noticed. The key to the match will be whether Nadal can get Del Potro moving and get the ball to bounce so high that it is uncomfortable even for the Argentinian giant.
Or whether Del Potro can take control of the baseline and out-slug Nadal on his favourite surface. Nadal will need to find a high first serve percentage as Delpo is not exactly known for going easy on the seconds. In that US Open 2009 semi-final, he won a whopping 70 percent of the points on Nadal's second serve.
While the match is more than interesting enough in itself, the further draw presents an interesting if not exactly likely possibility. If he wins against Nadal and get through the ensuing quarterfinal, where he can meet Michael Llodra and the rest of the seeding also holds true, the 1.98 meter tall Argentinian gets the chance to produce a feat that only his countryman David Nalbandian has produced:
Beating Nadal, Federer and Djokovic in the same tournament!
Now that would be some message to send, not least considering the form of Djokovic and Nadal.
Before we get too carried away though, let us see whether he can get over the mountain Rafael Nadal represents on clay. The safe money is on Nadal, but the sympathy goes to the comeback-kid. I can't help but root for him and actually do believe he is not only capable of, but also will produce the upset.
Am I likely to be wrong? Yes. But what the heck. May the best man win.