Commentary

Nadal must circumvent fatigue, injuries from grinding clay-court season

The salient question surrounding the Hamburg Masters is how Rafael Nadal will respond from a shocking defeat a week ago in Rome. The world No. 2 has shown vulnerability this year -- even on clay.

Originally Published: May 11, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Tournament: Hamburg Masters
Surface: Clay
Draw: 64
Prize money: $3.5 million
Top seeds: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko

A few weeks ago, who'd have thought Roger Federer would enter the Hamburg Masters in better physical shape than main rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic?

Nadal succumb to foot blisters at the Rome Masters, and Djokovic, despite winning the title, admitted he still wasn't 100 percent. The walking wounded also featured Andy Roddick, Fernando Gonzalez, Radek Stepanek, Nicolas Almagro and Juan Martin Del Potro, giving ammunition to those, Nadal included, who suggest this year's clay-court season is too condensed. Roddick, suffering from back spasms, subsequently skipped Hamburg.

Federer, after seemingly getting back on track by reaching the Monte Carlo Masters final, exited to the pesky Stepanek in the Rome quarters. He'll no doubt be boosted by a return to Hamburg, where the world No. 1 tries for a fifth title.

Memorably in the 2007 final, aided by the heavier conditions, Federer ended Nadal's record 81-match clay-court winning streak. Nadal is seeking his first Hamburg crown.

First Quarter: Federer's charge
Federer's opener in Rome against Guillermo Canas appeared tough, though the Swiss made quick work of the wily Argentine. His second-round match in Hamburg, probably versus Finnish grinder Jarkko Nieminen, could be just as easy. Things might get interesting in the third round if he meets in-form Russian Igor Andreev.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
AP Photo/Alessandra TarantinoRafael Nadal was hampered by blisters on his foot last week in Rome in a loss to Juan Carlos Ferrero.
David Ferrer, at No. 5, is Federer's potential quarterfinal opponent. For all the talk of Nadal's fatigue during the clay-court season, Ferrer's appearance in Rome marked his fourth straight week of action, and fifth if you include Davis Cup.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost on his comeback from a knee injury last week to countryman Gilles Simon. He's up against another compatriot, and should ease past Nicolas Mahut, more prolific on faster surfaces.

Prediction: Federer

Second Quarter: Davydenko's to win or lose
Davydenko, the tour's workhorse, had a week off prior to Rome and subsequently went out to Tommy Robredo in the third round in a typical Davydenko encounter -- full of peaks and troughs.

Given Stanislas Wawrinka's recent performances, he'd figure to give Davydenko a third-round battle. Yet the new world No. 10 must be mentally and physically drained following his appearance in the Rome final. Don't forget he reached the semis in Barcelona a week before.

Remember Richard Gasquet? Gasquet slumped to 10-9 this season after losing to Peruvian qualifier Luis Horna in the first round in Rome. He was asked afterward if he'd consider using a sports psychologist. (The answer was no.)

Gasquet's third-round opponent, if he gets that far, will be tough -- probably either Simone Bolelli, Filippo Volandri or Juan Monaco. Volandri and Monaco have had disappointing dirt campaigns so far.

Prediction: Davydenko

Third Quarter: Winner's fatigue?
Djokovic traditionally struggles the week after he wins a big tournament. Given he really only played a set against Almagro and Stepanek in the Rome quarters and semis, respectively, the Serb should be able to reverse the trend in Germany.

He's aided by a cushy draw, too, though a third-round tussle against home favorite Philipp Kohlschreiber may be entertaining. The diminutive Kohlschreiber returns from illness.

James Blake was a tiebreak away in Rome from his reaching his first Masters series semifinal on clay. Blake's possible second-round match against another Serb, Janko Tipsarevic, appears to be his only challenge ahead of the Hamburg quarters, given Almagro's health. Tomas Berdych is back following an ankle injury, and Jose Acasuso is a shadow of his former self on clay.

Prediction: Djokovic

Fourth Quarter: Nadal's foot
Much of what happens depends on Nadal's foot. If he isn't close to 100 percent, his rare vulnerability on dirt may surface again. If the foot is better, it's difficult to envisage the world No. 2 faltering. Simon is a potential third-round foe.

Based on the pairings, Roddick had a good chance of making it back-to-back quarterfinal appearances on the European clay, if only his back held up. Rising Croat Marin Cilic might have been his trickiest skirmish, in the second round.

Prediction: Nadal

Semifinals
Davydenko has come close to beating Federer before, most notably in last year's French Open semifinals. When it comes to the clutch, though, he can't seem to deliver. (Yes, we're aware he finally took out Nadal and Roddick in 2008.)

If Djokovic triumphs in Hamburg, he'll take over the No. 2 ranking from Nadal. You can bet the latter would be suitably pumped up.

Prediction: Nadal, Federer to advance

Final
Federer indeed topped Nadal last May in Hamburg, but only after Nadal convincingly won the first set 6-2. Consensus is Nadal was pooped. And the last time Nadal went without a title in consecutive clay-court events in a calendar year was in July 2004.

Prediction: Nadal

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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