<
>

Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer seeking their inner Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal will be going for his third straight title when the Madrid Open begins next week. Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

It feels just like old times again. As we move into the critical month of May, Rafael Nadal owns the headlines. He must be thrilled that they're about his outstanding tennis again, not just his bold, pro-active demand to have his drug tests made public.

And then there's Novak Djokovic, who's firmly entrenched at No. 1 with the critical ATP Madrid (which starts Sunday at 6 a.m. ET on ESPN3) and Rome Masters right around the corner. Here's how they and the rest of the contenders stack up:

(Note: Madrid career W-L records includes pre-2009 hard-court results.)

No. 1 Novak Djokovic (16-6, Madrid, 34-5 Italian Open)

He absorbed a first-round loss at the Monte Carlo Masters a couple of weeks ago. It gave him a well-earned extra week of rest after his hard-court Masters sweep. His legs may have a bit of extra spring on the relatively fast courts of Madrid; bad news for his rivals.

It's all relative, but Madrid has not been Djokovic's best event. He skipped it entirely for the past two years after suffering significant upsets before the quarterfinals in 2012 and '13. He's won just one title in Madrid, but he's 4-2 in Rome finals -- two championships earned at the expense of Nadal.

No. 2 Andy Murray (22-7, Madrid, 9-9 Italian Open)

Murray is the defending champion in Madrid, where the elevation gives the ball extra zip and helps his deadly counter-punching game.

The Scot had a dismal start to the Masters season, winning just one match at each hard-court 1000. But Murray looked sharp again in Monte Carlo -- right up to the point where he blew a nice lead over Nadal and ended up muttering his way through a three-set semifinal loss.

A smidgen more consistency on all fronts and Murray will challenge, at least in Madrid. He's never been to a final on the slower courts in Rome.

No. 3 Roger Federer (35-8 Madrid, 31-15 Italian Open)

Federer's plans for 2016 were turned topsy-turvy by an an unexpected knee injury and surgery, but maybe it's all working out for the best. Federer looked strong in Monte Carlo, putting away two savvy clay-court players before his lack of match play showed in a quarterfinal loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

As a No. 3 seed, Federer probably will benefit if he's drawn in the half opposite Nadal -- the only player who truly has his number. Federer is 0-4 in Rome finals. He's 3-2 in Madrid finals with a unique triple: He's won Madrid on hard court, blue clay and red clay.

No. 4 Stan Wawrinka (13-9 Madrid, 20-10 Italian Open)

"Stanimal" is a big guy with a big, booming game, which helps explain why his record is better on the slower clay of Rome, where he has more time to get to the ball and load up for a shot. He crushed Gilles Simon at Monte Carlo, but was then crushed himself by Nadal. So it goes for Stan, who's already bagged an ATP 500 and a 250 this year. Wawrinka lost a Madrid final to Nadal in 2013 and a Rome final to Djokovic eight years ago.

No. 5 Rafael Nadal (39-9, Madrid, 47-4 Italian Open)

There's no reason to rehash it. He's been the gold standard on clay for a decade, and his recent slump might be over. He will be the most closely watched player in May.

Nadal has taken great strides in recent weeks, winning back-to-back titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. But he's given his opponents numerous looks at break points and still played some uncharacteristically sloppy tennis that might not cut it in the weeks to come. Nadal is the four-time Madrid champ and seven-time titlist in Rome.

No. 6 Kei Nishikori (11-4 Madrid, 3-2 Italian Open)

It's odd that a player who was striving to three-peat just a week ago in the prestigious Barcelona event has played a mere 20 matches at the two big combined events in May. He's been warming to Madrid, though, thanks to making the 2014 final against Nadal. (Nishikori had to quit mid-match with an injury.) It would be foolish to take him lightly.

No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (10-8, Madrid, 8-8 Italian Open)

As big and explosive as this charismatic, Muhammad Ali doppelganger is, his critical, career shortcoming manifest itself again in Monte Carlo. After he upset Federer in a great three-set match, Tsonga was utterly uninspired in a 6-1, 6-3 semifinal loss against Gael Monfils. Tsonga is 31 and a perennial top-10 player, but he has made a grand total of just three quarterfinals combined in Madrid and Rome.

No. 8 Tomas Berdych (19-11 Madrid, 16-10 Italian Open)

Berdych, like Tsonga, is a guy who never quite punched through to the most elite level -- even briefly -- despite having a big enough game to beat anyone. And at 30, his time also is running out. Berdych is often in the mix in the late stages of Madrid. (He was a finalist in 2012, but that was on the reviled, ultra-fast blue clay), and he's been as far as the semifinals in Rome.

Players to Watch

No. 13 David Goffin might be the easiest player in tennis to underestimate. He's a small guy with a tough game.

No. 14 Gael Monfils logged quarterfinals at both the hard-court Masters events and played the Monte Carlo final. He's dangerous again.

No. 15 Dominic Thiem was 26-7 on the year before the start of the week with two titles. The 22-year-old Austrian is coming on -- hard.

No. 20 Nick Kyrgios, 21, notched his first ATP title early this year and has back-to-back tournament wins over Berdych.

No. 21 Benoit Paire is a 6-foot-5 former bad boy who's developed self-control -- and a game as big as he is.

No. 26 Jack Sock has been laying low since losing the finals of the US Clay Court Championship to Juan Monaco, but the 23-year old joins No. 16 John Isner as the top American hopes.

No. 337 Juan Martin del Potro returned from his latest surgery-induced layoff at Estoril this week and won his first match. He might not be a threat, but everyone agreed that it's nice to have him back.