Commentary

Can Djokovic ends Nadal's streak?

Updated: May 6, 2012, 12:22 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

Already annoyed by having to play a clay-court tournament at high altitude, Rafael Nadal became further ticked when organizers of the Madrid Masters opted for blue clay this year. He shifted most of the blame to the ATP.

Nadal should be near giddy. Unsure of how his left knee would hold up in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Nadal said it was fine and he won both titles without conceding a set.

Roger Federer returns to action in Madrid and is in the same half as Novak Djokovic, who is back himself after deciding to skip his hometown tournament. With Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish absent, only three Americans feature, led by John Isner.

Here's a closer look at the draw.

First quarter: Potential danger for Djokovic

For the elite, playing three straight weeks doesn't make much sense, so as difficult as it was for Djokovic to withdraw from Belgrade, it'll only serve him well. (Rome is next week.) Emotionally drained after the death of his grandfather during Monte Carlo, he'll be fresher.

It's a nice, comfortable start for Djokovic, since he's up against a qualifier. But his potential third-round and quarterfinal opponents, Stanislas Wawrinka and Gilles Simon, respectively, shouldn't be discounted.

Yes, Wawrinka has flattered to deceive so many times in the past, but isn't he due to give a top-five player a bit of grief? Wawrinka enters Madrid in good form after reaching the semis in Estoril.

Simon, meanwhile, has gone 9-2 on European clay in 2012 and he's on the verge of returning to the top 10 for the first time since October 2009. Simon's first-round match against the watchable Italian Fabio Fognini is a repeat of the Bucharest final the Frenchman won.

Prediction: Djokovic

Second quarter: Tough tests for Roger

Federer would have liked a tame opener, given he hasn't played for more than five weeks. A wild card, maybe, such as Javier Marti?

But no, Federer begins with either David Nalbandian or Milos Raonic, with both men in form. Nalbandian geared up for Madrid with an encouraging stint in Belgrade, and Raonic reached the semifinals in Barcelona. The faster conditions in Madrid would help Raonic, who took a set off Federer in the thin air of Indian Wells.

If Federer wins in the second round, it's unlikely he'll be beaten before the quarterfinals. Federer would probably encounter David Ferrer or Nicolas Almagro in the last eight, and he's a combined 17-0 against the Spaniards. Almagro needs wins in Madrid to kick-start his European clay-court swing.

The floater in the section? Thomaz Bellucci. He crushed Ferrer in Monte Carlo, advanced to the semis in Madrid last year and had Djokovic on the ropes. Bellucci's tussle with Richard Gasquet is one of the most intriguing first-round matches.

Prediction: Federer

Third quarter: Isner's opportunity

With Andy Murray sidelined because of a back injury, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was handed the No. 4 seeding. That means there's a huge opportunity for Isner and Juan Martin del Potro to progress to the semis. The two giants could meet in the third round.

Getting there, however, will be harder for Isner -- even if he has a first-round bye. His first match is likely against Marin Cilic, who is beginning to find his old form. Cilic upset Nalbandian in the Davis Cup -- in Argentina -- last month and went deep in Munich this week. And at the Australian Open last year, Cilic edged Isner in a 4½-hour thriller.

Clay, and Madrid in particular, might be the tonic del Potro needs to defeat one of the big three for the first time since 2009 (not factoring in a retirement win against Djokovic).

Tsonga and Alexandr Dolgopolov are two of the top entertainers in the men's game, and they could battle in the third round. Dolgopolov, though, tangles with an in-form Pablo Andujar in the first.

Prediction: Del Potro

Fourth quarter: Interesting opener for Rafa

Rafa's mood wouldn't have improved when he saw his second-round challenger. After a bye, he gets Ivo Karlovic or former top-six regular Nikolay Davydenko.

If ever there was a clay-court tournament for Karlovic to be paired with Nadal, it's Madrid. Karlovic has lost five of his past six matches, but as is always the case given his massive serve, you never know. Davydenko, unlike Nadal, will be in good spirits after his wife, Irina, gave birth to their first child in April. Maybe he'll forget about being ranked 56th last Monday, his lowest spot since the summer of 2004.

Nadal will still be heavily favored to beat Karlovic or Davydenko, and the only player in his quarter thereafter who could trouble the world No. 2 is Tomas Berdych. He reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo and has ousted Nadal in Madrid before -- albeit on a hard court indoors.

Gael Monfils and Juan Carlos Ferrero, hampered by injury in recent seasons, make their latest comebacks.

Prediction: Nadal

Semifinals: Djokovic def. Federer, Nadal def. del Potro

Winner: Djokovic

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.