As a winner of 16 grand slams, Rafael Nadal does not often become weighed down by pressure. But at the Madrid Open this week, the Spaniard will be feeling the heat as he needs to win the title to ensure he clings on to the world number one ranking.
Anything but victory at Cala Magica would see Roger Federer, with his feet up at home after electing to skip the clay court campaign, regain the top spot in world tennis.
Nadal has been granted a bye in the first round, so he will open up his quest against Gael Monfils.
Winning in Madrid should not be too tough an ask for Nadal, as he has claimed the title on five previous occasions, but the conditions are somewhat different to the likes of Monte Carlo and Barcelona which are at sea level, whereas the Spanish capital is at an altitude of 667 metres. It is a situation that takes a bit of adjustment, even for players as great as Nadal, and it is something he referenced in his pre-event press conference.
“I think that I go through a process of adaptation,” Nadal said, per the ATP’s official website. “I have played a couple of tournaments before where I have played really well. In Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, you have the feeling that you are in control of the situation. Here, it’s different. It takes you time to adapt to how the ball bounces and flies.
“Day by day I keep improving. I have better feelings. I’m happy to be back here. It’s always special to play at home. It’s a very, very special moment, a very special occasion for me to be able to play here.”
Nadal has looked imperious on the European clay so far this year, dominating all who have faced him. But there will be a new puzzle for the 31-year-old to solve, should it get that far. A certain Juan Martin Del Potro makes his first appearance on clay this season, which is an indicator that he will take a shot at the French Open.
Del Potro has stated in the past that clay puts his fragile body under extra strain, but he is evidently happy to take the chance and he would be a formidable foe for Nadal.
The Argentinean has won at Indian Wells earlier this season with the sort of tennis that would test the elite of the game, and his hard-hitting approach is well suited to playing at altitude.
He faces no easy task getting to the final, but should he meet Nadal at the weekend, expect fireworks.