Nadal vs. Wawrinka and Other Matches We Hope to See at 2014 Madrid Masters

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMay 4, 2014

Nadal vs. Wawrinka and Other Matches We Hope to See at 2014 Madrid Masters

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    Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

    The 2014 Mutua Madrid Open draw poses exciting possibilities, especially for tennis fans who are evaluating Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka. They have been linked since the Australian Open in January and are at the heart of talks surrounding old dynasty vs. change.

    There are plenty of other stars, questions and possible matchups to examine, even though Novak Djokovic will be sidelined with a wrist injury. Does Andy Murray have a chance to get through his draw? Will Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer form a tag team set of matches that will be too much for Nadal to get through?

    The WTA also has interesting potential matches. Serena Williams is back, but maybe Maria Sharapova is ready as well. Which other rising star could mix in some new blood at the top?

    This week, we take a step back from the "Winners and Losers" column to preview the best possible matches at Madrid. It's an important step to the French Open, and it will fit more puzzling pieces together for the completion of the 2014 clay-court season.

    Which matches will set up even greater drama at the French Open?

Novak Djokovic Is Out

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    Right when Novak Djokovic is poised to retake the No. 1 ranking from Rafael Nadal, he must sit out because of a wrist injury suffered at Monte Carlo. It's never easy, and the Serbian has now been dealt a nasty break that must feel like the whole tennis world has conspired to defeat him.

    Maybe Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" was meant for Djokovic. He must hope he can recover and still have the timing to walk through red-clay purgatory and capture the tournament that has most eluded him, the French Open.

    So we will not see him take on the toughest draw in Madrid. He will not potentially clash with Stanislas Wawrinka on clay. That would have been something.

    For Djokovic, adversity and challenges have a way of galvanizing him to play even better. Can his wrist heal in time for him to vie for the French Open title and recapture his No. 1 ranking? That's all that matters to him right now.

Eugenie Bouchard vs. Agnieszka Radwanska

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Every draw sets up imbalances in the bracket. It's rarely equal for the players, but the fans can see some early clashes with stars. This week, No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska will face off against young No. 18 Eugenie Bourchard in the first round.

    Is this fair? Should the draw protect pairings that could (should?) be quarterfinal or semifinal matches?

    On one hand, it's a lot of fun to have random pairings. Straight-up seeding would produce more redundant matchups and possibly some strategic "tanking" from certain players to either avoid a troublesome opponent or drop down to play somebody he or she would rather contest.

    But in terms of the money and advancing through the draw, a match like Radwanska vs. Bouchard is not in either player's best interest. They will have to fight hard to do more than cover the airfare, lodgings and other expenses of coming to Madrid.

    There are definitely things to fix with tennis, but the draw, with all its imperfections, is still good for the sport.

    Go with Radwanska to win in three tough sets.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Kei Nishikori

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    The hottest man in tennis hopes to break out the whipping stick for a beatdown of the Madrid draw. And why not? Stanislas Wawrinka has that look that says he fears nobody. He also has a fairly nice path to the finals, especially because Novak Djokovic will not compete.

    Wawrinka could get Milos Raonic or Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals, but Nishikori is the more interesting matchup. Besides, Wawrinka just defeated Raonic at Monte Carlo.

    Nishikori would have to challenge with all sorts of angles in his shots. He would need to take time away from Wawrinka by getting him to run more and not line up his strokes. If Nishikori can hit with efficient power, he will be able to mount a much better challenge than David Ferrer did at Monte Carlo.

    But the bottom of the draw is still about Wawrinka. Will he continue to plow through the draw with his eye-popping power and confidence? Despite his brawling style and toughness, he must show that he can play through more championship pressure. Right now, he looks like the odds-on favorite to land in the finals.

Serena Williams vs. Simona Halep

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    Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

    After an early exit on green clay at Charleston's Family Circle Cup, Serena Williams declared it was time to "go on a vacation," according to Tennis Now.

    Will she return ready or rusty? Clay has been her most difficult surface, if only because it mitigates her serve and power to some degree. It gives her opponents a fighting chance to grind through a match, and she has been known to have off days and unforced errors.

    Meanwhile, Simona Halep must navigate through her portion of the draw that includes either Jelena Jankovic or Ana Ivanovic. Halep could potentially meet Serena in the semifinals, which would be a breath of fresh air for the tennis fans who are tired of watching Serena dominate the likes of her talented but flawed rivals at the top.

    Halep does not have a decade of losses versus Serena or the mental scarring from constant failure in big matches. She is 0-3 versus Serena including one-sided losses at Rome and Cincinnati last year, but this is a new year and more confident Halep.

    First, she must forget about Serena. This is a new opportunity, and she must feel that the future is now.

    Second, she has to be a hard worker, and her baseline intelligence needs to be more efficient. She must stay within each point and game, never getting too high or low when Serena flexes her muscles and shouts after powerful shots.

    Finally, Halep has to play all the way to the end. Nobody can come back from a struggling match like Serena. We would like to see if Halep has the game and tenacity to win an exciting possible matchup versus the World No. 1 and her legendary career.

    See, it's this last part that Halep must forget.

Retro Match 2007: Federer vs. Nadal at Hamburg

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    FABIAN BIMMER/Associated Press

    Madrid's tradition is very thin, but we can at least pay homage to Hamburg. This was a Masters 1000 tournament from 2000-08, before getting downgraded and replaced by Madrid.

    This week we take a look at Roger Federer's 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 victory over Rafael Nadal in 2007. It was historically significant because it was his first clay-court win and title versus Nadal, and it snapped the Spaniard's record 81-match winning streak on clay, a record that may never be approached.

    According to BBC Sport, Nadal began to look "jaded" as he collapsed in the third set. For his part, he said, "Maybe I was not the same like always mentally. I feel a little tired mentally, but physically I was OK."

    Nadal also left a lot of short balls that Federer put away. The Swiss added in BBC Sport, "It's absolutely a breakthrough. It will be interesting to see how we both react in the French Open."

    Federer told Five Live, via BBC Sport: "...I really got the feeling in the end I had figured out how to play him. This is the position I wanted to put myself in over and over again and finally I could beat him on clay in a final."

    It was indeed a triumphant title for Federer, but the faster clay and best-of-three sets format at Hamburg would not be there at Roland Garros. Nadal won his third straight French Open title 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

    If Nadal fans want to draw on any lessons here, it's that the Spaniard has faced challenges to his Roland Garros dominance before. He has been nearly perfect with his responses.

Maria Sharapova vs. Li Na

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Li Na and Maria Sharapova have formed a compelling rivalry in the past three years. They took the 2011 and 2012 French Open titles, respectively, and have competed with Serena Williams for the top two spots. OK, they've chased Serena, but they have battled each other.

    One of their most interesting matches was a dramatic final clash at the 2012 Rome final. Li actually led 6-4, 4-0 before Sharapova's comeback and a two-hour rain delay. Both players had chances to win the third and final set, and all the while the rain came down, and the tiebreaker produced several gutsy shots. Sharapova eked out the win 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(5).

    We would love to see an encore in the quarterfinals. Sharapova is coming off her title at Stuttgart (she defeated Li there in 2013), and Li is the Australian Open winner and No. 2 player. Clay is the perfect medium to showcase their baseline strokes and mental toughness—qualities that have driven these women to the top of their profession.

    Give Li the slight edge, but do not count out Sharapova until they shake hands at the net.

Rafael Nadal vs. Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer

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    Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

    The top half of the draw has most of the star power. Most eyes will be on Rafael Nadal to see if the clay king will elevate his game to mirror his past dominance.

    The quarterfinals could get tough. Tomas Berdych might be there, but he looked shaky getting dumped in the Portugal Open final, and it's hard to see him getting over the hump versus Nadal. Instead, Grigor Dimitrov would be the more interesting opponent.

    He has had hot and cold spells this year, but the good tennis is becoming more frequent, and he's not afraid to compete against the very best. He has battled Nadal fiercely three times in the past year and could very well put it together against a vulnerable Nadal. If Dimitrov is able to hit his best forehand with regularity and force Nadal into short shots, he can win this match.

    Nadal must be Nadal. First ball to last ball must be the kind of fight he had come to expect in challenging a younger Roger Federer. Is Nadal willing to pay the price as if he is the challenger? Part of the burden in being No. 1 is retaining the role of a challenger's mentality. If he does defeat Dimitrov, we could see another reunion with Federer.

    The pregame story is always new, even if the result is often familiar. Nadal did have to defeat Dimitrov and Federer at successive matches at the Australian Open. An energy-draining match for Nadal versus Dimitrov could work in Federer's favor. The Swiss is a resilient optimist when it comes to resetting with another challenge versus his younger rivals. He's older but no less intent on believing he can win, even against Nadal.

    Of course we could also see Dimitrov vs. Federer, and that would be quite a match as well.

Best WTA Final: Simona Halep vs. Maria Sharapova

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Simona Halep vs. Serena Williams is as good as it gets, but Halep vs. Maria Sharapova would be a great final the way Madrid's draw shakes out.

    This would be a fresh matchup. They met twice in 2012, but a lot has changed. Sharapova is no longer in the top two spots, and Halep has the better ranking now. How would she respond to being the favorite?

    It would be Sharapova's relentless baseline power and will versus Halep's more steady tennis. Halep would need to pick her spots for more aggressive tennis. Would she be able to close out a more experienced star?

    This is the kind of match that is good for tennis: a hard-charging future star versus one of the proven warriors who is looking to regain her 2012 clay-court form. How tough is Halep? Is Sharapova back and ready to charge for the French Open title?

    This is why we love the Masters 1000 challenges: plenty of appetizers before the Grand Slams.

Best ATP Final: Rafael Nadal vs. Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

    Face it. The clay-court season is more interesting with the challenge of defeating a top-notch Rafael Nadal.

    Suppose Novak Djokovic's wrist does not heal. Suppose Nadal goes into the tank. Would the French Open be as interesting?

    Maybe the other players would love this opportunity, but with tennis history on the line, we would love to see the top two players at their best and see how someone like Stanislas Wawrinka responds.

    There is also the drama and effects of the Australian Open final. Would Nadal be able to wipe away the Wawrinka blemish and gain at least a modicum of revenge? Madrid could never erase Melbourne, but it could restore his confidence and set him up as the solid favorite.

    Then again, Wawrinka would love to come in on clay, blast his powerful flat groundstrokes and blow Nadal off the court. It would not only add even more evidence to his two big titles this year but might make him the French Open favorite.

    We could expect a Grand Slam feel to this match. Intensity would bubble over, and there would be the contrast of styles and approaches. Could Nadal turn this into a series of long, winning rallies and high-hopping topspin? Could Wawrinka pick apart short balls and reverse the 6-2, 6-4 loss in his 2013 Madrid final versus Nadal?

    Since we just got Wawrinka vs. Federer at Monte Carlo, we want Nadal vs. Wawrinka at Madrid. Let the winner run off to Rome with the upper hand as Paris draws nigh.