Former world number one Novak Djokovic has been evidently struggling in 2017. The defending Mutua Madrid Open champion announced last week, that he has parted ways with his coaching team. The decision is a shrewd one for the current world number two, and it could prove to be a pivotal one. However, there are rumours, that a fellow former world number one, and Career Grand Slam winner, Andre Agassi could become his new coach and fill the void that Boris Becker left. Nonetheless, Djokovic will be hoping to have a good start to his title defence at the Caja Magica, as he will be on his own. The top seed retained his Qatar ExxonMobil Open title in January by defeating fellow two-time former champion and top seed Andy Murray. Furthermore, Djokovic has failed to defend numerous of his titles, which has been a surprise.
The Serb surrendered his grasp on the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Australian Open as Uzbek, Denis Istomin stunned him in the second round. He lost his BNP Paribas Open title losing to Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round, and the former world number one relinquished his Miami Open title after withdrawing from the second Masters 1000 event of the year due to an elbow injury.
Djokovic reiterated that his split with his entire coaching team was mutual. "It was not an easy decision, neither for my team nor for me... This team has been there with me ever since I started a professional career. So it's been 10 fantastic, successful years." The former world number one added that the team felt the change was needed. "But we all felt like we needed a change. We all felt like we needed to enter a new chapter. It was a mutual decision... We just accepted it in a very good way... We move on, excited, all of us to see what the next chapter of our career and life brings.
"We tried to work things out another time, but we just needed to move on. It was all in good spirits."
The two-time and reigning Mutua Madrid Open champion has won the title in 2011 and last year, however, he lost to Grigor Dimitrov early in 2013 and he opted to skip the solitary Spanish Masters 1000 event in 2014 and 2015. Djokovic's title defence begins against former world number nine Nicolas Almagro.
Almagro was a semifinalist at the Caja Magica back in 2010, and the Spaniard has got a good clay court pedigree by advancing to the quarterfinals of the French Open on three occasions, and an appearance in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 2013. In fact, all 13 of Almagro's ATP World Tour titles have come on his favoured clay court surface. The Spaniard is currently ranked at 76 in the world, and a foot injury in 2014 caused him to miss seven months of action in 2014.
How they got here
Djokovic as the second seed received a bye in the opening round, whereas, Almagro had a three set tussle with his compatriot and fellow wildcard Tommy Robredo, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 for the fifth time in his career, avenging his French Open fourth-round defeat in 2013, after leading two sets to love.
Djokovic and Almagro have met on four occasions, and the 12-time Grand Slam champion has a flawless 4-0 head-to-head record over the four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist.
The reigning Mutua Madrid Open champion won their first meeting in the quarterfinals of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome back in 2008, after Almagro retired after falling 6-1, 1-0 down. Their second encounter was a clinically ruthless performance by Djokovic at the Australian Open in 2011, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0, sealing his spot in the quarterfinals in the process, and going on to win his second Australian Open title and first of three Slams in a dominant 2011.
Their third meeting was another straight sets victory in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in 2012. Their most recent encounter was in the second round at the Foro Italico in Rome and by far their closest encounter to date. Djokovic prevailed, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3.
This match is certainly on Djokovic's racquet but that could be said for plenty of his matches in 2017. He suffered his first defeat to David Goffin in a high-quality quarterfinal encounter at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters. Nevertheless, the second seed has the tools to ease past Almagro, as Djokovic moves better than the world number 76 on clay, and his serve is a formidable weapon, which bails him out of trouble.
Almagro has the tools to trouble Djokovic with his blistering forehands and could come out swinging in the earlier goings. However, the Spaniard gets frustrated and tends to fall away in matches. Despite, Djokovic struggling in 2017, he should win this match and book his spot in the third round.
This is the second match scheduled on the Manolo Santana court, and the third round prize is Gilles Simon or Feliciano Lopez, who are both veterans on the tour, and credible clay court players.
Prediction: Djokovic in straight sets.