For the first time this season, someone other than Novak Djokovic is to claim a Masters event as the Serb misses out in Madrid after winning in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo.
Djokovic also claimed the opening Grand Slam of the season in Australia, but has opted for extra rest to aid his bid to land a first French Open title next month.
The absence of the world No. 1 could prove a big boost for defending champion Rafael Nadal as he tries to get his season going on home soil after a poor start to the campaign by his standards.
Nadal has won just one tournament this year, in Buenos Aires back in February, and has only one win against a top 10 opponent in a 19-7 record on the year.
The 14-time Grand Slam champion described his performance as “awful” after crashing out to Fabio Fognini of Italy at the Barcelona Open last week.
However, he recovered from a similarly unsettling start on the clay last season to go on to claim his fourth title in Madrid before securing a ninth French Open.
Three-time winner Roger Federer returns after missing last year’s event due to the birth of his second set of twins, while Andy Murray is confident of improving on his best-ever showing in Madrid since the tournament moved onto clay, not having progressed past the quarter-finals in five previous attempts.
However, the biggest threat to Nadal could come from last year’s finalist Kei Nishikori, who looked in fine form as he retained his title in Barcelona.
On the women’s side, Serena Williams will be aiming to continue her imperious 20-0 start to the season.
Williams also has not lost in Madrid since 2010, winning the tournament in 2012 and 2013 before injury forced her to pull out at the quarter-final stage last year.
Amazingly, Williams claimed she was “not as ready for the clay-court season as I thought I was” in being taken to a deciding set before beating Italy’s Sara Errani on Fed Cup duty two weeks ago.
The 19-time Grand Slam champion also faces a tough draw with Sloane Stephens, a potential second round opponent, and a meeting with sister Venus or Victoria Azarenka in the third round.
Defending champion Maria Sharapova is on the other side of the draw along with Simona Halep, who the Russian overcame to win last year’s final.
“I enjoy playing here a lot. I got to the final in 2013 and lost to Serena, then last year I managed to go a step further and win. The objective this year is to defend my title,” Sharapova said.
After reaching the Australian Open final, Sharapova has had a poor couple of months, losing her first match in Miami and Stuttgart in her last two tournaments and being surpassed by Halep in the rankings.
“At this stage of my career, I don’t take the ranking as seriously. I was No. 1 in the world and it is something that comes and goes,” she said. “It doesn’t matter, the important thing is that I continue have the chance to win matches and tournaments.”
The NBA said was re-evaluating its training program in China following allegations of abuse of young players by local staff and harassment of foreign staffers at a facility in Xinjiang. The comments come after a report by ESPN that quoted unnamed American coaches as saying that Chinese coaches hit young players. One American coach who worked at a camp in Xinjiang complained of harassment by local police, the sports network said. “The allegations in the ESPN article are disturbing,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said in an e-mail statement on Thursday. “We ended our involvement with the basketball academy in Xinjiang in June
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LEAVING IT LATE: Rakuten added late runs last night to add to wins on Wednesday against the Brothers and the Lions on Friday that went down to the last batter The Rakuten Monkeys rallied to post three late runs for another close win, prevailing 5-3 over the Uni-President Lions yesterday as Taiwan’s second-half CPBL season got started with lower scoring output, but exciting finishes. It was Rakuten’s third win in a row. In two games this week, they seized victory in dramatic fashion with their last at-bat and have drawn level with the CTBC Brothers on top of the table after yesterday’s results, 0.5 games in front of the Fubon Guardians and 1.5 games ahead of the Lions. It was tied at 1-1 early, with Rakuten hosting the Lions at the Taoyuan Intenational
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