Rafael Nadal is the man to beat in Barcelona following his eighth straight Monte Carlo Masters success this past weekend.
To say that clay-court tennis has become predictable would be a huge understatement as Nadal has ‘owned’ the surface for the best part of a decade.
He has won 37 titles on clay and only ever really been challenged by Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and, with neither of those two in the line-up this week at the Barcelona Open, it seems almost inevitable that the Majorcan will make it number 38.
The 25-year-old has won this event six times already and, of the big four, he will only have Britain’s Andy Murray, who has been seeded second for the tournament, in his way.
It seems inevitable that, barring injury, he will reach the final and he will kick off his campaign against either Guillermo Garcia-Lopez or Olivier Rochus later in the week after they have battled it out (Garcia-Lopez 4/7, Rochus 5/4 – Betfred
Rochus has never lost to Tuesday’s opponent in four meetings but has not faced the Spaniard on clay since the 2005 French Open, when he triumphed in four sets.
The Belgian failed to progress past the first round in Monte Carlo last week, losing to another Spanish star, Fernando Verdasco, while Garcia-Lopez fell in the second round of a Challenger event in Rome to Jan Hajek.
It is fair to say that Nadal will not be quaking in his boots at the prospect of facing either player and there is only Murray in the field that, on his day, could threaten the 10-time Grand Slam winner.
Murray is scheduled to play 26-year-old Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky and, while the Scot is prone to the odd wobble in the early rounds on clay, he should be far too good for the world number 68 (Murray 1/25, Stakhovsky 9/1 – Match Prices).
The British number one was beaten in the quarter-finals in Monte Carlo by Tomas Berdych last week but the Czech Republic star is also absent this week and so the way should be clear for Murray to reach the final, with David Ferrer a possible semi-final opponent.
He has faced Stakhovsky twice before, winning both times on hard courts, although the East European star did take a set off him in Dubai back in 2009 (Murray 2-1 – Set Betting – 9/2).
Murray is a much-improved player on clay, however, and will fancy his chances of a straight-sets victory.
Ferrer is not in action until Wednesday and will play Serbia’s world number 789 Filip Krajinovic and this contest looks a huge mismatch (Ferrer 2-1 – Set Betting – 6/1).
The two-time Roland Garros quarter-finalist is at home on clay and, if all goes to plan, will meet Murray in the last four on Saturday, with the home crowd no doubt baying for an all-Spanish final showdown.
Janko Tipsarevic has reached the giddy heights of eighth in the world and is the highest-ranked Serb in the field, with Djokovic absent. He faces the winner of the Rui Machado vs Victor Hanescu clash and will confident of reaching at least the quarter-finals, where he is likely to run into Nadal.
This is not the strongest of fields, with Federer, Djokovic and Berdych missing, and there is a sense that everyone is playing for second place. But it is a chance for a few of the lesser stars to go deep in a tournament and sample the pressure of a quarter-final or last-four clash.
If Murray does go on to play Nadal in the final he will have to make history to claim the title as he has never beaten the world number two on clay. But he did take a set off the talented left-hander in Monte Carlo last year and claimed a 2-0 victory the last time they met in Tokyo in 2011.
However, that was not on this week’s surface and he will have to raise his level from last week to even get close to the ‘King of Clay’.