Rafael Nadal hadn't started the clay-court season with these many setbacks in four years. Not since 2015 had Nadal arrived at the Madrid Open without having won a title either in Monte Carlo or in Barcelona, the tournaments that mark the start of clay swing in Europe. That year, Nadal was coming off a series of injuries and ended not reaching the final of either tournament. He also didn't win the title in Madrid, Rome and the French Open, dropping out of the top five in the rankings for the first time in a decade.
Now things are different, though. Despite the disappointing results, the second-ranked Nadal says there is no reason for concern. "My confidence is back," Nadal said after the semifinal loss to Dominic Thiem in Barcelona, which ended his run of three straight titles in the tournament. "I really believe that I made very good improvements to create a good base to try to achieve my goals during the next couple of weeks." Nadal will be trying to win his third straight French Open title — and 12th overall — at Roland Garros in June. He lost to Fabio Fognini in the semifinals at Monte Carlo, where he also had won three titles in a row. The only other time Nadal hadn't won either in Monte Carlo or in Barcelona was in 2014.
"Against Fognini I played the worst match probably in 14 years on clay. (Against Thiem) I played a good match. I was competitive and I enjoyed the match. I really felt competitive for the first time in a way that I want to feel myself. I am happy and I am confident that I made a big improvement." The 17-time Grand Slam winner has won a clay-court title in each of the last 15 seasons. He is an eight-time finalist in Madrid, with his last of five titles coming in 2017. He was defeated by Thiem in the quarterfinals last year. Nadal will start this year's campaign against the winner of the match between young Canadians Felix Auger-Aliassime or Denis Shapovalov, a semifinalist last year.
Auger-Aliassime is one of the sensations on tour this season, having reached the final in Rio and the semifinals in Miami. The other half of the Madrid draw has top-seeded Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who will be making his return to clay-court tournaments after two seasons. The 37-year-old Federer, a three-time champion in Madrid, is preparing to make his first French Open appearance since 2015. Federer hasn't played on clay since Rome in 2016, but is looking for his third title of the season to add to his triumphs in Dubai and Miami. The only other player with two titles this season is Thiem, who beat Federer in the Indian Wells final.
Federer and Thiem could meet in the quarterfinals in Madrid. The defending champion in Madrid is Alexander Zverev, the German who did not drop his serve in his winning campaign last year. He will start this year's tournament against David Ferrer, the veteran Spaniard who is retiring following the tournament in Madrid. Petra Kvitova will defend her title in the women's side. The second-seeded Czech is a three-time champion in Madrid and the tournament's most successful women's player with 27 wins and six losses. Naomi Osaka is the top-seed player this year in Madrid.