World number one Novak Djokovic returns to the Madrid Masters for the first time in three years, aiming to forget his blip at the Monte Carlo Masters with a strong challenge expected from a resurgent Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic was stunned in his opening match in Monte Carlo by the unheralded Czech Jiri Vesely, to lose for the first time in 2016 other than when he was forced to retire with an eye infection against Feliciano Lopez in Dubai back in February.
The Serb’s absence cleared the way for Nadal to land his first Masters title in nearly two years and the Spaniard extended his perfect start to the European clay-court season by claiming a ninth Barcelona Open last week to equal Guillermo Vilas’s record of 49 clay-court titles.
Nadal will be eager to claim his 50th on home soil having reached the final in Madrid in six of the past seven years, although he was comprehensively beaten by Andy Murray as the Briton claimed his first Masters title on clay in last year’s final.
Murray has had an inconsistent season as he has dealt with the extra burden of becoming a father for the first time in February.
Yet, despite Djokovic’s dominance over the past year, Murray believes the 11-time Grand Slam champion can be stopped in the tournament that starts on Sunday.
“Everyone and anyone can be beaten, but at the moment Novak’s consistency is making him just that little bit harder to beat,” said Murray.
“He has incredibly consistent ground strokes, so he likes to draw the points out. I think more and more guys are trying to make the points against him shorter, they’ll move into the net a bit earlier and put him under pressure.
“However he has the ability to make shots from everywhere so it doesn’t always work.
“It’s good to have multiple game plans against him, if one isn’t working you can switch to something different, it’s important to keep him guessing and make him as uncomfortable as possible.”
Djokovic, Nadal and Murray will be joined by Roger Federer in the Spanish capital.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion had initially planned to skip Madrid to reserve his energy for the three remaining Grand Slams and Rio Olympics later in the year.
However, the Swiss’s plans have changed having missed nearly three months of the season due to knee surgery, including the Masters series events in Indian Wells and Miami.