2017 has been a resurgent year for world number five Rafael Nadal. The 14-time Grand Slam champion suffered from injuries and illness towards the end of the 2014 campaign, which carried on into 2015 and 2016 which were two injury-ravaged campaigns for the Spaniard. In fact, his run to the Australian Open final in January was the first time that Nadal had advanced to the quarterfinals or better at a Grand Slam event since the French Open in 2015, when he suffered an easy three-set loss to Novak Djokovic. Nevertheless, Nadal has continued to play the sport he loves, and it has certainly paid dividends. The former world number one has added compatriot Carlos Moya to his coaching team, and it has been a successful partnership. The Spaniard has reached a tour-high of five finals in 2017, losing three of those finals in Melbourne and Miami to rival Roger Federer, and a shocking loss in Acapulco to Sam Querrey. Nevertheless, Nadal has put that right as he retained his titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, winning both events a staggering ten times each.
Nadal is currently on an 11-match winning streak, which is in major jeopardy at the Mutua Madrid Open as he searches for a fifth title at the Caja Magica, and the first one since 2014. He faces off against the charismatic Nick Kyrgios. The 16th seeded Australian defeated Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014 to advance to his maiden Slam quarterfinal on the lawns at SW19. Kyrgios continued his good form by reaching the quarterfinals in his home event at the Australian Open in 2015.
Clay is by far Kyrgios' weakest surface, however, he has recorded some good victories on the red dirt as he defeated reigning Australian Open champion Roger Federer in this very vicinity in 2015. The 22-year-old lost in the second round of the Australian Open to Andreas Seppi, the Italian gained his revenge over Kyrgios from two years ago, a carbon copy of Kyrgios' victory who defeated Seppi in 2015 overturning a two set to love deficit, which Seppi did to him this year. Nonetheless, Kyrgios has rebounded perfectly as he lost to eventual champions Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Sam Querrey in the semifinals of Marseille and Acapulco respectively, and unfortunately, he had to withdraw from his anticipated quarterfinal encounter with Federer at the BNP Paribas Open due to illness. Nevertheless, the tennis world got that mouthwatering encounter a week later in Miami, when Kyrgios defeated seeded players in Ivo Karlovic, Alexander Zverev and David Goffin back-to-back before losing to Federer in three quality sets which required tiebreakers. Kyrgios had to withdraw from the tournament in Estoril due to attend his grandfather's funeral but he has returned very strong on tour.
How they got here
Nadal a winner of 29 Masters 1000 titles received a bye in the first round, had his work cut out for him in his second round clash with Fabio Fognini. Fognini was a thorn in Nadal's side in 2015 as the duo clashed on five occasions that year with the Italian getting the better of Nadal, three times. Nevertheless, the nine-time French Open champion overcame Fognini, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4 in a match that was three minutes shy of three hours. This was Nadal's fourth successive victory over Fognini as the duo met in the semifinals in Miami, which was a more routine, 6-1, 7-5 victory over the fourth seed. Furthermore, Kyrgios' progression through to the third round has been relatively straightforward. The Australian number one dispatched 2006 Australian Open runner-up Marcos Baghdatis, 7-6 (1), 6-4 to reach the second round, and followed this up with a routine, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Ryan Harrison. Kyrgios will be aiming to reach the quarterfinals for a second successive year in Madrid.
The two seeded players have met on two occasions and both players have one win apiece. Their first meeting was in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2014. Kyrgios defeated the two-time Wimbledon champion, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3, performing a serving masterclass. However, Kyrgios is part of an elusive group that includes Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis and most recently Dustin Brown for being players ranked at 100 or lower by upsetting Nadal but failing to win their next match at Wimbledon. However, it looked as though, that Kyrgios would shock Nadal on the Spaniard's favoured surface at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome in the third round. The two-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist took the first set but Nadal stormed back to win the match, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-4, however, the Spaniard would fall to Novak Djokovic in the following round.
Who reaches the quarterfinals?
The conditions at the Mutua Madrid Open will slightly favour Kyrgios in this matchup with Nadal as the conditions are at altitude, and they would favour a big server like Kyrgios. The Australian number one certainly has the credentials to upset Nadal on clay courts. He upset Federer on this surface a couple of years ago, which is one of his greatest victories in his career. Taking the scalp of Nadal on clay would be something special. However, this is clay and Nadal, we are talking about. The current fifth-ranked player in the world is one of the best fighters on tour and would fancy his chances against Kyrgios.
The Spaniard's serve can wonder sometimes, which could bring doubt into Nadal's mind, and if Kyrgios can see those frailties, it could spur him on to upset Nadal again. On the other hand, the four-time champion is an exceptional returner on clay, and he will be looking to make Kyrgios uncomfortable on the court, and play an extra ball. The 14-time Slam winner will need to remain patient on his return games, and ultimately, the former world number one is full of confidence at the moment, and it is hard to look past a Nadal victory.
This intriguing third round encounter between Nadal and Kyrgios kicks off the night session on the Manolo Santana court at not before 8 pm local time, and the winner of this match will have a tough assignment in the quarterfinals against last year's Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonic, seeded fifth or ninth seed David Goffin, a two-time Slam quarterfinalist who upset Djokovic in Monte Carlo.
Prediction: Nadal in three sets.