For an event with such a short history, the Madrid Masters and its Magic Box venue have won more than their share of headlines, and this year promised more of the same.
The Spanish capital won tennis Masters status in 2002 as part of the European indoor swing but was moved to May and to clay in 2009.
It became the first Masters in Europe to become a “mini Major” when the ATP joined with the WTA to make Madrid a combined event.
And for the event’s 10th anniversary, there was yet another change: a swap in the calendar with the Rome Masters.
But the tennis at the purpose-built Caja Magica—the Madrid Masters' venue since 2009—has not lacked drama either.
At the inaugural event, Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic in their third clay Masters showdown in the space of a month: It lasted over four hours. Then in the final, Roger Federer beat Nadal on clay for only the second time in their 23-match rivalry.
Last year, the home crowd celebrated Nadal’s revenge over Federer for the title and, this year, the Magic Box promised another crucial phase in the battle between those same three players.
Djokovic was enjoying a 28-match winning streak and had beaten Nadal in their previous two meetings—both Masters finals.
Federer had something to prove. He was behind both Nadal and Djokovic in the rankings and had lost to one of them in four consecutive tournaments.
For Nadal, Madrid represented even more: the defence of a 34-match winning streak on clay, a possible 20th Masters title and his status as No. 1 in the world.
The top seed came to Madrid on the back of four consecutive finals and more records than you could shake a stick at.
In Monte Carlo, he became the first man to win a tournament seven times in a row and, incidentally, notched up his 30th clay court title.
During Barcelona, he reached the 500th win of his career—the second youngest player after Bjorn Borg to do so. He also became the first man in the Open era to win two tournaments at least six times.
And he had not lost on clay since Roland Garros 2009.
When the draw for Madrid was made, though, it looked tricky: Marcos Baghdatis in his first match followed by a selection of strong opponents in the second.
Nadal’s segment featured Marin Cilic and Mikhail Youzhny, but both of whom were powered out of contention by the biggest threat in the quarter—Juan Martin Del Potro.
Although Nadal had beaten the Argentine in the semis at Indian Wells, Del Potro was improving fast after his long absence from the tour. He had won 23 of his previous 26 matches—up to 25 from 28 ahead of his scheduled third-round appointment with Nadal—and was on an unbeaten 2011 clay run of his own.
He arrived in Madrid with the Estoril title—a tournament in which he had beaten top seed Robin Soderling and then Fernando Verdasco, both in straight sets.
Factor in three straight wins for Del Potro prior to Indian Wells—including the semifinals of the U.S. Open—and this had the makings of a classic. Not surprisingly, the Nadal-Del Potro face-off was given the prime slot in Thursday’s schedule.
Then came the shocking announcement that Del Potro had withdrawn due to the hip injury sustained during his first-round match against Youzhny.
It was a shock because the Argentine had subsequently beaten Cilic for the loss of just three games in a single hour, and all seemed well. But with more matches prior to Madrid than any of the top six men, the workload had clearly taken its toll.
For Nadal, however, his unexpected bye ensured a place in the quarters and the likely prospect of reaching the semifinal without facing a single seed. His scheduled opponent, Jurgen Melzer, did not even make it through his opening match.
A hint of irony, then, from the magic wand that waved over the Caja Magica. The man who began with one of the trickiest draws in the competition—the top seed and the favorite for the title—found himself with the clearest run to Saturday’s semifinal. And a rested Nadal is the last thing anyone wants to face, least of all his quarterfinal opponent.
That opponent was the 30-year-old Michael Llodra, whose elegant serve-and-volley game had made the most of the fast Madrid clay and the absence of any seeds in his segment, either. But he played a two-hour, 20-minute three-setter while Nadal sat back and watched. Hardly the most encouraging scenario for the Frenchman.
Beyond Llodra, the path to the title may still hold the other two of the triumvirate. There could be a replay of the last two years’ finals with Federer, though the Swiss first faces the No. 5 seed, Robin Soderling, who beat him in the French Open last year.
For the title match, it still remains possible for the clay swing to produce a third final in a row between the same two men: Nadal and his compatriot David Ferrer.
The No. 6 seed has looked as good in Madrid as at any time all year, finding remarkable power, speed and—his most valuable asset—desire to win in his bullish match against Sergiy Stakhovsky.
For him to reach the final, however, Ferrer will need to find the tennis of his life, because his immediate formidable task is to beat Djokovic, and no one has managed to do that in five and a half months or 29 consecutive matches.
Nadal is not just defending champion at this week’s Masters, though, but also next week in Rome and then in Paris, making 4,000 points to defend. He therefore needs to repeat his perfect 2010 clay run if he is to retain his place at No. 1 in the coming couple of months—and then do the same at Wimbledon.
Djokovic has just 540 clay points to defend and has already covered some of those by reaching this week’s quarterfinals.
So it’s 2011’s unbeaten man on clay up against 2011’s unbeaten man on the hard courts, both aiming for the No. 1 spot even before Wimbledon. And lurking behind them is Federer who, should he take titles of his own, may challenge them further down the road should they trip up.
Suddenly, the last matches in the Magic Box seem to be weaving together the finest possible spell.