Old Bosses, New Bosses

Monday, May 14, 2012 /by

SwThe Mutua Madrid Open, after a downer of a week, closed on a couple of up notes on Sunday. Roger Federer and Serena Williams, the active Grand Slam leaders on each tour, came to Ion Tiriac’s rescue with two memorable final-round wins. Williams’s quick victory over Victoria Azarenka was a clarifying moment for the WTA. The message was: Vika may be No. 1, but—and this is the more important fact—Serena is still Serena. The Swiss’s three-setter over Tomas Berdych, on the other hand, was a complicating moment for the ATP. Just when the clay season seemed destined to come down to a two-man battle between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Federer, after an entertaining victory with surprises and fine shot-making throughout, walked away from Madrid the new world No. 2. Perhaps with a bullet.

Now that the most divisive event of the season is past us and the blue dust has settled, I’ll take a look back at three ways of understanding what happened in Madrid.

*****

As a low point, but a possible turning point, for the tournament
It would be easy to draw a moral contrast between Federer’s win and the angry early exits of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, but I’m not going to do that. Federer’s approach to the blue clay, which was to do his best to adjust to it, was certainly more productive than those of Rafa and Nole, who refused to accept it. But theirs was a legitimate response as well. It’s fine to make the clay blue (though I prefer red), and it’s fine to make it faster (though I like classic dirtball at this time of year); Madrid has always been pretty quick, even when it was red. But it isn’t fine to have a substandard, too slippery surface, which, as Tiriac himself admitted, is what this was. Champions do adjust, but this wasn’t a court that they should have been forced to adjust to in the first place.

By the end of the week, once the high-profile malcontents had disappeared and Federer had given the court his tacit blessing (mostly with his play), opinion had begun to shift. Tiriac was an “innovator” again, rather than an egomaniac, and the blue clay’s increased visibility had made it a success after all. Still, it should be remembered that when the idea of blue was broached in 2009, it was because that was the color of one of the tournament’s main sponsors, not because it made the ball easier to see. Tiriac’s most honest and telling (and funny) line of last week came when he defended the surface and the tournament by mentioning the amount of prize money—10 million dollars—it was offering. “That kind of money does not come from Mother Theresa,” he said in what I can only imagine was a low-pitched growl. Tiriac is an innovator in the sense that he’s created a rich and forward-looking new event for tennis; that’s no small thing. But this year he did it with an untested gimmick rather than a vision, and at the expense of the tournament’s quality.

This could change by next year. A chastened Tiriac has said that he wants to hold a Challenger event on the surface to show that it can be improved. More important, the clay will be left intact all year this time. In the past the courts at the Caja Magica, which was designed to be a mixed use facility, were dug up after the tournament and laid down again in the spring, which didn’t give them much time to “settle.” Now the clay, as it does in Rome and Paris and Barcelona, will settle all year.

(Of course, this change comes in part because the other sports teams that were supposed to use the facility the rest of the year have left, and the concerts that were supposed to bring in revenue were never booked. As Kamakshi Tandon pointed out in this soberingly informative piece for ESPN.com last week, the city, which helped fund Tiriac’s move from Stuttgart as well as the construction of the Caja Magica, “was left to manage a huge facility that faced a string of financial challenges.” It had been projected to cost 150 million euros, but ended up costing 300 million, “because of miscalculations about the soil.” Sound familiar?)

Tiriac and tournament director Manolo Santana say that they pounded the clay too much, in an effort to avoid bad bounces like the one that caused Federer to whiff on match point in the 2010 final. In the process, they made it too slippery. It sounds like the problem can fixed, but they also guaranteed there would be no problems in 2012. A test run later involving Nadal and Djokovic, if possible, might put the issue to rest and let Tiriac’s experiment in blue survive.

*****

As a reason for concern for one runner-up, and hope for another
You wouldn’t think that Tomas Berdych, chilly and nervy and sometimes less than sporting, would inspire an obsessive fan club, would you? But he has one in Australia, the vocal and funny Berdych Army. I’ve never understood their passion, but by the end of yesterday’s final, I found myself liking the Big Berd more than I ever have. He seemed like a tragic character this time, a player who pulled the rug out from under his own growing confidence at the end of the second set. And then did it again at the end of the third.

Berdych played well, which wasn’t a shock—he’s had success recently against Federer, the surface suited him, and he’d been killing people all week. His backhand down the line, in particular, was a thing of beauty in the final. What was a shock was that Berdych also fought so well. Down 2-5 in the second set and 3-5 in the third, counted out by everyone in both cases, Berdych didn’t go away. In the end, though, he may have made it worse on himself. He got back to 5-5 in both sets, only to lose his serve at 5-6 each time. He double faulted twice to throw away the second set, and he came back from 0-40 down in the final game of the the third, only to net a forehand on Federer's fourth match point. Afterward Berdych sat down and rubbed his sweaty hair with a look of pained disbelief. So close, how had he let it slip away again? Shouldn’t his success have given him more confidence in the clutch than this?

In the past, Berdych has seemed so close, yet so far. Now he just seems so close, which is a step forward. He should be primed for a big win this year, if only he can convince himself, when the big moment comes, that it's possible.

On the women’s side, is the jig up for Victoria Azarenka? First Maria Sharapova blows a hole in her No. 1 confidence in Stuttgart, then Serena drives a truck through it in Madrid. Each of those women did it by exposing a weakness that Azarenka has done a decent job of covering up this year: her serve. Serena took her returns inside the baseline and, when she wasn’t hitting them for winners, set up second shots that she could take at the service line. The pressure got to Vika quickly: She double faulted three times in the third game alone.

Azarenka has been able to pick her spots this year, to be patient, get balls back, and wait for one that she can attack. Against Serena, she doesn’t have that luxury. She was completely taken out of her game yesterday. Even smashing her racquet to the ground in the second set didn’t help. Serena just blasted a forehand past her on the next point to break. You can't let your anger work for you if you don't get a chance to hit the ball.

Against Serena, the main problem for Azarenka may be her ranking. If she were 2 or 4 or 10, Williams might not be so dialed in against her. Unfortunately for her, Vika is No. 1.

Rf*****

As yet one more forum for the two best players of their era
Roger Federer and Serena Williams own 29 Grand Slam singles titles between them, but now they can claim a new title: the world’s only masters of blue clay. Serena in particular was at her finest virtually all week. When she needed it, her defense on dirt was excellent; the shanks and misfires that can accompany her winners were virtually nonexistent; and her serve, as it usually is, was the shot of the tournament. It was about as clean as I can remember Serena playing over an extended period. Clean and mean—her backhand return winners had the demoralizing power of a slap to the face. Yet along with being focused, Serena also appeared to be enjoying herself, and she reveled in her 41st title as if it were her first.

The final was a foregone conclusion by the end of the first game, when Williams slapped one of those backhand return winners to break Azarenka. But I was struck by how hard Serena fought in the second set not to let her opponent back in. She almost seemed . . . nervous? Serving at 4-2, 30-0, in total control, she tensed up on a forehand, yet still hit it for a winner. Afterward, Serena let out a scream and a fist-pump. Sometimes she does this as a message to her opponent, but this one was a message to herself: Fight through the tightness, you’re almost there. Now Serena, with back to back clay titles, is there. Can anyone else be the favorite for the French Open right now? You might as well throw in Wimbledon and the Olympics as well.

“Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss”: That was the headline of a story I did for Tennis Magazine about Serena Williams and Roger Federer way back in 2008, when they each ended disappointing seasons with titles at the U.S. Open. Four years later, the words still apply to both of them. As I said at the top here, we don’t need to crush Nadal and Djokovic because they didn’t react to the blue clay the same way Federer did. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t credit Federer for the way he approached this event from start to finish.

Federer adjusted, and then re-adjusted. New to the slippery surface, he served and volleyed consistently in his opener against Milos Raonic and ended up at the net 34 times. In the final, he came to the net just nine times. Different opponents, different tactics, same result.

Federer expressed sympathy for Nadal’s and Djokovic’s positions, without forgetting what his job was. He was rewarded in the end with the No. 2 ranking, an inside track to the second seed spot at Roland Garros, and a net gain of nearly 1500 ranking points on Djokovic. He was also forced to survive two highly pressurized matches against Raonic and Berdych.

Federer served well in the clutch, as always—if there’s going to be sign of his decline, it will come when he no longer comes up with big serves just when he needs them. Most important against Berdych, Federer stopped the rot at 5-5 in each set by dictating with his serve and halting his opponent's momentum.

Federer, at 3-4 in the third, 0-15, thought about chipping and charging on his return, then thought better of it. Instead, as Robbie Koenig put it, he decided, “I’m just going to hit the clean winner.” Federer’s backhand clipped the sideline. Smart tactics and a good attitude help, but they wouldn't mean much without plain old otherworldly talent.

Federer, at 0-30 in the final game, went to a shot that he hadn't used much all day, his trademark short slice backhand crosscourt. It earned him three match points. Who else can play 32 games and still have something left in the bag?

Federer, in his speech at the end, remembered the home-country hero, Nadal, said he loved coming to Madrid, and assured everyone he would back next year, whatever color is beneath his feet.

No wonder Federer didn’t have a problem with the slippery surface. He didn’t put a foot wrong all week.

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