There are times when the world rankings might seem little more than an academic exercise but this week's Madrid Masters shows how crucial they can be. The rankings are used to decide seedings at tournaments and Rafael Nadal is set to pay a price in the Spanish capital for slipping to No 5 in the world order following his seven-month absence with a knee injury.
If Nadal is to win the title he may have to beat David Ferrer (world No 4) in the quarter-finals, Roger Federer (world No 2) in the semi-finals and Novak Djokovic (world No 1) or Andy Murray (world No 3) in the final. That is a tall order even for the king of clay, especially in Madrid, where the high altitude and thinner air make the balls fly faster.
Guy Forget, the former French Davis Cup captain, suggested recently that Nadal should be given a higher seeding at the French Open, which starts in 20 days' time, though the player himself said he did not agree.
"The players that are in front of me are there because they have been playing better than me," Nadal said yesterday. "They have played. I haven't played and I haven't trained either. Good for them for not being injured. The problem is mine."
Murray is another likely to keep a close eye on the rankings in the coming weeks. The Scot briefly reclaimed the world No 2 position from Federer in March, only to let the Swiss back in a month later. Murray will return to No 2 next week, however, unless Federer makes a successful defence of his Madrid title. Murray pulled out of Madrid because of injury 12 months ago so has no ranking points to defend in the coming days.
The Scot will be keen to get as many clay-court matches under his belt as possible. After playing only two matches in Monte Carlo last month, he needs as much time on court as possible.
Although the latter stages look tough – Murray is seeded to meet Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals and Djokovic in the semi-finals – the draw could have been worse. After a first-round bye, Murray plays either Brazil's Thomaz Bellucci or Germany's Florian Mayer. Thereafter he could meet Gilles Simon in the third round.
Murray has been practising in Madrid since Thursday. "Practice is important for me on this surface more than most because I need to get used to the movements again, patterns of play that I use on this surface, which is different to the other courts," he said. "I need to get used to playing points again on this surface, because there are things that you do on the clay that don't necessarily work on other surfaces, and things that work on other courts don't work so well on the clay. So it takes a lot of time on the court practising and playing a lot of sets for me to get back into that routine."
Asked who might win in Madrid, Murray replied: "I hope it's me, but I have no idea who will win. In individual sport it's very difficult to tell.
"I think especially playing at altitude it's a bit different. This is maybe one of the very few tournaments in the year we play at that altitude, so I think that changes things a little bit. There are always a few surprises at this event."
Djokovic, meanwhile, could face some difficult early challenges. His opening match is likely to be against the talented young Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, while Stanislas Wawrinka is his scheduled third-round opponent. Wawrinka, who beat Murray in straight sets in Monte Carlo and came within a whisker of beating Djokovic at the Australian Open in January, yesterday won the title in Estoril, beating Ferrer 6-1, 6-4 in the final.
The courts in Madrid have reverted to traditional red clay following last year's controversial experiment with a blue surface, which drew strong criticism from Nadal and Djokovic in particular. "Fortunately the courts this year are really good," Nadal said.
Federer, who is playing his first tournament since losing to Nadal at the Indian Wells Masters two months ago, said he was "extremely excited" to be competing again.
"Obviously you're working hard but there is no glory really in working on a practice court with nobody watching you play," he said. "What we play for at the end of the day is playing in front of fans and being part of the show and achieving things in your career you always dreamed about. For that, I need to work hard as well.
"I need to get away from it all, so that when I do come back I'm excited and motivated. That's what I feel right now, and that then can carry you a long way. For me, it was important to take a bit of a rest. Not too long, just enough so I'm really tough to beat in the next few months."