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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Djokovic and Sharapova show encouraging signs of form: Madrid Open talking points

The ATP and WTA Tours have arrived in the Spanish capital

Novak Djokovic celebrates after his first round win over Kei Nishikori at the Madrid Open. Clive Brunskill / Getty Images
Novak Djokovic celebrates after his first round win over Kei Nishikori at the Madrid Open. Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

Djokovic gets timely boost

It’s been a hard slog for Novak Djokovic this year. After cutting short his 2017 season in July to focus on recovering from an elbow injury, the 30-year-old Serb returned in time for the Australian Open in January, seemingly ready to kick-start his season at a tournament where his six titles are matched only by Roger Federer.

Except he wasn’t ready – he wasn’t even close, just as he admitted in the build-up to this week’s Madrid Open. What followed Melbourne made for uncomfortable viewing. Watching Djokovic, a former world No 1 and winner of 12 grand slam titles, get bullied around the court by the likes of world No 109 Taro Daniel, world No 47 Benoit Paire, and world No 140 Martin Klizan brought into focus just how far away he was to rediscovering his form. No disrespect to these players, but those are the sort of guys Djokovic could previously beat sleepwalking.

It seems, however, all those hard sessions on the practice court are starting to pay off as Djokovic claimed his biggest win of the season in Madrid on Monday. Drawn against Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the first round, there was every chance Djokovic’s tough run would continue. Nishikori, the former world No 4 now ranked 20th, is also making his way back from a lengthy injury absence, but a run to the Monte Carlo Masters final last month was a clear sign of progress.

It was a cautious, tight, and closely-fought contest. It lacked any real zip or magic from either player. Indeed, Djokovic accumulated more than 33 unforced errors. But none of that matters. He has picked up an important win against a quality opponent, and has something to use as a springboard moving forward in Madrid and beyond.

Sharapova’s new favourite surface

Maria Sharapova in action against Irina-Camelia Begu. Mariscal / EPA
Maria Sharapova in action against Irina-Camelia Begu. Mariscal / EPA

Maria Sharapova’s first year back since returning from a 15-month doping suspension has not gone entirely to plan. A persistent arm injury and subsequent struggles for form have resulted in the Russian getting nowhere near her pre-ban world ranking of No 7.

Indeed, three successive first round defeats – in Doha, Indian Wells, and Stuttgart – have seen Sharapova drop out of the world’s top 50.

However, there are genuine signs of encouragement in Madrid. Sharapova has been the nemesis of Romanian tennis in the Spanish capital, eliminating their second and fourth-ranked players in the opening two rounds.

Michaela Buzarnescu was a potentially tricky first round opponent having just reached the Prague Open final – she was dealt with in style by the former world No 1, as was her compatriot Irina Begu on Monday.

In the early Sharapova years, clay was unquestionably her weaker surface but it has proved her most successful during the latter part of her career. Most tellingly, her last two major titles came at the French Open, in 2012 and 2014 – she hasn’t had any success at the other big tournaments in a decade.

There’s still a long way for Sharapova to travel on her planned journey back to the top, but some form and momentum leading up to Roland Garros might just make things interesting.

Sliver of hope for Nadal’s rivals?

Rafael Nadal on the Madrid practice courts. Mariscal / EPA
Rafael Nadal on the Madrid practice courts. Mariscal / EPA

Given what has transpired so far this European clay court swing, Rafael Nadal will begin his Madrid Open campaign on Tuesday as the overwhelming favourite to win the title.

The Spanish world No 1 barely broke sweat on his way to winning titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and has now won both tournaments a staggering 11 times.

A glance at the honours roll for the two upcoming clay court tournaments, the Italian Open and French Open, Nadal unsurprisingly features prominently. He is a seven-time champion in Rome, while his victory at Roland Garros last season clinched "La Decima".

Put into that context, Madrid has proved Nadal’s least successful tournament. A down-right failure, in fact. That is, if you class five titles – including last year – a failure. And that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The Madrid Open has only been a clay event since 2009, and in the nine editions since its transition, Nadal has reached seven finals and won four.

So actually, it’s a pretty formidable record. Maybe there isn’t much hope for his rivals after all.