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Tennis: Big guns line up in Madrid

The ATP World Tour clay-court season ramps up on Sunday with a Madrid Open draw which features both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

The two heavyweights are yet to lock horns this season - Djokovic has been largely absent due to visa issues, while Nadal hasn't been seen since losing the Indian Wells final due to a fractured rib.

A number of other ATP big guns will also line up at La Caja Magica for a tournament which, in addition to next week's Italian Open, will serve as key preparation for the French Open, which starts at the end of May. 

Nadal the man to beat despite fitness concerns

Clay courts and Rafael Nadal have always gone hand in hand and the Spaniard leads the market as he bids to win his national Open for a sixth time.

While five Madrid titles looks impressive, Nadal has always had a love-hate relationship with Madrid and four Caja Magica crowns since the event switched to clay in 2009 is a slim return compared to his 13 French Opens, 11 Monte Carlo titles and ten Rome triumphs.

A relentless winning machine at his best, Nadal began the year by winning his 21st Grand Slam in Australia, a men's record, before more glory in Mexico and a final appearance in California, where he found only Taylor Fritz too strong.

However, that Indian Wells run took a lot out of Nadal and he hasn't been seen since, opting to skip Monte Carlo and Barcelona before returning to action this week.

The Spanish legend is 6/5 to claim a 14th French in Paris, which looks a more realistic target given his Madrid preparation has been unusual in comparison to previous seasons.

Two heavyweights among a stacked top half

Nadal's biggest problem in Madrid could well be Djokovic, who he could potentially meet in the semi-finals, but there are a number of other dangers lurking in the top half.

Djokovic, beaten in his opener in Monte Carlo before finding only Andrey Rublev too strong in his home Serbia Open, appears to be edging towards match fitness although there is no doubt that both he and Nadal have Paris on their minds and will be aiming to peak towards the end of May rather than the beginning.

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They both have countless Masters 1000 titles to their names but their Grand Slam victories will define their respective legacies so both could be forgiven if they happen to slip up in an event which has gone the way of Alexander Zverev in each of the last two editions.

Before any meeting with Djokovic, Nadal may first have to pass Carlos Alcaraz, the young Spanish phenomenon who pushed his compatriot all the way in an Indian Wells semi-final before winning the Miami Open title.

Alcaraz, who turns 19 during the tournament, has drawn inevitable comparisons to Nadal and claimed a third clay-court title and fourth overall when he triumphed in Barcelona, impressively shaking off defeat in Monte Carlo to triumph in Catalunya.

The future is seriously bright for the teenager, who is just 11/4 to win the French Open and will also take high rank in the betting at La Caja Magica, but having to see off two all-time greats in Nadal and Djokovic - a distinct possibility given the top-half draw - will test his mettle.

Grand Slam champs clash in Caja Magica opener

There are other dangers in the top half and no doubt that the tie of the opening round comes from that section where three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray takes on Dominic Thiem, who is working his way back from a series of wrist injuries.

Thiem, for a long time the biggest threat to Nadal on clay, is a two-time French Open finalist but he has not won a match in three events since making his comeback, which suggests he may need more time before 16/1 quotes for the French look anything like value.

Murray, never at his best on clay but also never one to underestimate, will be aiming to do some damage to the Austrian and is 11/8 to win the match, which looks a reasonable possibility given Thiem may not want to get embroiled in a battle.

Look for betting angles in the bottom half

With one of Djokovic, Nadal and Alcaraz expected to emerge from the top half of the draw, the best option for punters may well be to steer clear of the section entirely and look for value in the bottom half.

Stefanos Tsistipas has a clay-court game which can compete with the best and the Greek star demonstrated his prowess when winning the Monte Carlo Masters before Alcaraz stopped him in Barcelona.

He should again acquit himself well in Spain while dual Madrid champion Alexander Zverev should not be written off despite a slow start to the European clay season.

Belgrade champion Rublev remains a force in regular Tour events but has a habit of coming up short in the biggest events so perhaps there is room for an outsider to claim Madrid glory, with the likes of Sebastian Korda and Diego Schwartzman both holding each-way claims.

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