The Surprises in Spain
Look at this. I get in at 9:30 A.M. on Monday morning, ready to write a preview of the dual-gender, red-clay, triple-retractable-roof mega-Masters—is this a tournament or a burger at Wendy’s?—in Madrid and everything has happened already. Henin and Sharapova are out, and Serena has wasted no time in pulling one of her “I-can’t-do-anything, I-can’t do-anything, I-can’t-do-anything, OK-I’ll-do-something” last-millisecond victories, this one over Vera Dushevina, who was up 4-0 in a third-set tiebreaker before losing 7-5.
The women have set a chaotic tone. What are the chances that the men continue it? Seems unlikely, right? With Federer on the fritz, Murray muddling, and Djokovic Dj-choking on spring pollen, you never can tell.
Federer is the first seed, of course, but with his recent results you have to look at him match by match. He’ll start with Benjamin Becker tomorrow and move on to a potentially tricky third-rounder with his friend Stan Wawrinka, who showed a few signs of life in Rome before having them unceremoniously snuffed out by Rafael Nadal. If Federer gets through that, he might play Andy Roddick, who is making his 2010 clay-court debut; or Ernests Gulbis, who just beat him in Rome; or Albert Montanes, who just beat him in Estoril. It’s a tricky section. I haven’t seen any of his wins lately, but I did see those losses to Gulbis and Montanes. What’s odd, and possibly disturbing, is that in the first one it was his forehand that looked awful, and in the second it was his backhand that was, as Eurosport's commentator put it, not inaccurately, “absolutely horrid.” Federer says he's not panicking yet, but that he isn’t moving well enough. He’s come back from this type of form in the past, but this will be the stiffest test of his physical and mental resilience yet. He surprised us here last year, the same way in Hamburg, the tournament that was replaced by Madrid, on more than one occasion. Maybe this is his week. Maybe it isn’t his week anymore.
Didn’t we see this section, or something close to it, a couple of weeks ago? While the slumping Andy Murray is perched precariously as the highest seed, the much more solid David Ferrer has to be the betting man’s choice. Other names of note here are Cilic, a finalist in Munich this past week; Baghdatis, who has been up and down this year but somewhat cheerful about it, which seems like a good sign; and Querrey, terminally cheerful and a winner, on clay, in Belgrade over the weekend.
Should we book Ferrer another spot in the semis, just based on his consistency relative to everyone else? Probably. But Murray has to hit bottom at some point. As hard as it might be to believe right now, he’s too good to keep muddling forever, and he knows he needs to generate some kind of positive energy heading toward Wimbledon. Still, I’m not brave enough to have him in my final four.
This is the Novak-less quarter, which is now occupied, on either end, by Verdasco and Soderling. There aren't a whole lot of obstacles between the two of them and the quarterfinals. Nalbandian and Berdych are both here, but they play each other in the first round. Two solid but not quite terrifying South Americans, Bellucci and Monaco, might get each other in the second round. Almagro could be a dangerous opponent for Soderling in the second round. With his dismal loss to Wawrinka in Rome, Soderling showed us that he’s not going to own the tour just yet, that the off-day still lurks within. The question on the other side is whether Verdasco has recovered from his three-week adventure and subsequent collapse at the Foro Italico. The other question is how he’ll he react to being the hometown favorite. Last year, he reached the quarters in Madrid, but his career record in the city is 6-7. That’s not too different from how he’s done everywhere else. He plays Karlovic first, which will be a test of his nerve, but I’d say he’s slightly less likely to succumb to the upset bug than the Sod.
With Federer fritzing, Murray muddling, Djokovic sneezing, and del Potro long gone, this is clearly Rafael Nadal’s tournament to win or lose. Plus, having skipped Barcelona, I don’t think he’ll be as conflicted about playing this event, which takes place at higher altitude just a week before the French, as he was last year.
Nadal might get Seppi, who has beaten him indoors, in his opening round, and Isner, who has taken a set from him on hard courts, after that—though Isner, after reaching the final in Belgrade, is no lock to get there. The two top seeds on the other side of the draw are Tsonga and Monfils, each of whom has the potential to bounce Nadal off the court on a very good day. But he’ll only have to face one of them.
Semifinals: Ferrer d. Wawrinka; Nadal d. Verdasco
Final: Nadal d. Ferrer
Serena has survived, which, at least at the majors, often means she’s a lock to go all the way. That’s not true everywhere else, however, and she has a testy draw. Three Russians loom for her: either Pavlyuchenkova or Petrova, who play next, and after that Dementieva, who has had a quiet but solid year so far, marred only by a couple of early losses to Henin. If Dementieva faces off against Serena, we might get another wild ride. Or another classic match. Is there a difference with Serena?
As I write this, Dinara Safina, the defending champion and highest seed in this section, is in the first game against Zakapolova. Depending on her form and fitness after her back injury, Safina could reach the quarters—though can someone explain the system of byes here? Why is Safina playing a first-round match while Jankovic, who is seeded lower, and Ivanovic, who is a wild card, move right into a second-round match with each other? Is this because they went deep in Rome? Either way, their match might have the tinge of a grudge encounter, considering that there seems to be some bad blood between them over Fed Cup. We’ll see how real Ivanovic’s strong play was last week.
Venus Williams and Vera Zvonareva are in a tight first set at the moment, and the winner will be set up to reach the quarters. That’s where, if current form holds, she’ll meet either Sam Stosur or Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. Those two, who have each been playing career-best tennis this spring, face each other next. If it’s Venus vs. Stosur in the quarters, Stosur will be coming in at her best, but Venus will be coming with a 3-0 head-to-head record.
Semifinalist: V. Williams
The women’s draw gets funkier by the minute. Here I find two more surprises that I hadn’t heard about before: Peer over No. 5 seed Kuznetsova, and Peng over an injured No. 10 seed Victoria Azarenka. The result is a section that’s about as wide open as it’s possible to get. Wozniacki, the No 2 seed, is still here, but even she has been struggling. The next highest seed is Li Na, at No. 13. Talk about bumpy rides.
Semifinals: Dementieva d. Jankovic; V. Williams d. Wozniacki
Final: Dementieva d. V. Williams