The Madrid Masters began yesterday, and did you know it's being held on blue clay?
Ha. It's been fascinating watching the debate about this color unspool, and once again it's shown just how resistant people are to change. Since previews often involve making predictions, here's my main one for the Madrid combined event: There will be nothing, but nothing, wrong with the surface, although some pundits, players, and/or their partisans might find a way to blame it for something or other—a bad loss, a poor service conversion precentage, whatever. . .
But enough with the smurf-clay already. Let's take a look at who's playing through a slightly different and surprisingly handy prism: We'll look at the eight quarterfinalists of the 2011 Madrid tournament from each draw, comment on their chances, and add whatever remarks seem appropriate about other contenders afterwards.
Novak Djokovic (2011 Champion): His win over Rafael Nadal in last year's final rocked tennis, and foreshadowed the remarkable year he would have on all surfaces. He's in a very different situation this year, and has already yielded the high-ground on clay to Rafa with that loss a few weeks ago in Monte Carlo. Djokovic has said that all he really wants out of this spring is good preparation for the French Open (the only major that he hasn't won), so it will be interesting to see just how willing he is to fight for every blessed point, as he did last year when he broke Nadal's resistance in Madrid and Rome.
Rafael Nadal (Finalist; lost to Djokovic): After allowing Djokovic to overrun him last year, Nadal is well-positioned to win back some of the turf he's surrendered. As defending champion at Roland Garros, Nadal is still the "king on clay," and a win here, especially over Djokovic, would help keep that little smidgen of doubt planted in Nole's mind as the show rolls into Paris.
Roger Federer (Semifinalist; lost to Nadal): Beaten by Nadal in 2011, Federer has yet to play a clay-court tournament this year. So what? This clay surface is relatively fast because of the altitude, and some players have already suggested that it plays faster than red clay. If that's the case, anything could happen—provided Federer is on his game and refrains from playing on anyone's terms but his own. His big stumbling block is, as ever, Nadal.
Thomaz Bellucci (Semifinalist; lost to Djokovic): Bellucci had a great run last year, built on an upset of No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych, but he's always been a very up-and-down player, and there's no sign that he's in an "up" phase so far in 2012. It's hard to imagine this Brazilian repeating his performance, but players do tend to lift their games in places where they've previously enjoyed success.
Michael Llodra (Quarterfinalist; lost to Nadal): That the Frenchman made the final eight is a testament to the relatively quick surface in Madrid—and one of Llodra's best weeks, ever, as a singles player. But Llodra hasn't won a set on clay this year, so I wouldn't expect a repeat showing.
Robin Soderling (Quarterfinalist; lost to Federer): The big Swede is still MIA, due to the lingering effects of mononucleosis.
Tomas Berdych (Quarterfinalst; lost to Bellucci): If you had to pick a sleeper to win, this would be the guy. Berdych has sustained a high level of play (he's been lodged at No. 7 in the world rankings since October of last year) and ought to benefit from fairly quick courts. He had a great tournament in Monte Carlo, downing No. 4 Andy Murray before succumbing to Djokovic in the semis. This is one guy who's ship has not come in, but you can hear it blowing is foghorn out in the harbor.
David Ferrer (Quarterfinalist; lost to Djokovic): He's reliable, steady, consistent, always a threat but rarely to win the whole shooting match. But Ferrer's problem is simple: He just can't beat the members of the ATP's Big Four at big events. He's 14-39 overall against them, 0-12 against Federer but a respectable 4-5 with Murray. Not cringe-worthy, when you consider the opposition, but Ferrer flat-out backs off in those resonant, closely watched, major battles.
Half of these quarterfinalists have an excellent chance to repeat, led by the three top players. Berdych is my sleeper pick, but I'd rate Ferrer's stock as particularly high, albeit not against Federer or his countryman Nadal. One of these days, Ferrer is going to step up instead of back with a big title on the line. Among those most likely to take some of my projected vacancies in the quarters: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Janko Tipsarevic. I can also see Nicolas Almagro and perhaps Milos Raonic going deep this year.
Petra Kvitova (Champion): It's hard to think of a defending champion at a big event in recent times whose chances seem less certain than Kvitova's (at least until we get to the French Open). Ever since she came within a hair's breadth of unseating Caroline Wozniacki as last year's season-ending No. 1, she's been in retreat.
Kvitova did make the semis at the first Grand Slam tournament of the year in Melbourne, but that was on hard courts. After that, she struggled. She won just one match in the two big combined events in the U.S., and lost on clay last week in Stuttgart to eventual champ Maria Sharapova. The queen of Madrid is there to be deposed.
Victoria Azarenka (Finalist; lost to Kvitova): At a time when most of the top women are strongest on hard courts, Azarenka's relative weakness on clay is hardly a strike against her. And I say "relative" because she was a finalist last week at Stuttgart, which is disappointing only when compared to her formidable record this year (29-2). This will be a great opportunity for Vika to assert herself on clay—especially when you look at the frailty of almost all the other contenders.
Li Na (Semifinalist; lost to Kvitova): Given how much her fortunes fluctuate, the three quarterfinal finishes in her last three events (Indian Wells, Miami, and Stuttgart) has to be seen as a positive sign. Her main task in Madrid is to shed the rap that at age 30 she's become a perpetual quarterfinalist.
Julia Goerges (Semifinalist; lost to Azarenka): Ever dangerous, Goerges is the upset-maker who still needs to take that critical next step to big-event finalist. It won't happen here: She lost in the opening round to rising compatriot Mona Barthel. Goerges' game has been hit-and-miss lately, and she's now won just three matches on clay in four events (including a Fed Cup tie). She was taken out of the loaded Stuttgart field last week by struggling Sam Stosur.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands (Quarterfinalist; lost to Li): I have to believe that Mattek-Sands' result last year ranks right up there with her victory in the Australian Open mixed doubles this year. She suffered a back injury not long after that win Down Under, and hasn't played since Indian Wells, where she took a first-round loss. It's hard to envision a repeat performance in Madrid.
Dominika Cibulkova (Quarterfinalist; lost to Kvitova): Although she's forever hampered by her diminutive size (5'3"), Cibulkova is a proven upset-maker (just ask Wozniacki). She reached a clay-court final recently in Barcelona, but bombed out in the first round of Stuttgart, losing to No. 116 Akgul Amanmuradova. But anything is possible with this one, including another solid finish.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (Quarterfinalist; lost to Goerges): I've touted Pavlyuchenkova for so long that I can spell her last name without consulting a reference, but she's mired in a terrible slump. Just 20 years old, she's already been as high as No. 13—a ranking she achieved less than a year ago—and has all the talent in the world. 'Stasia lost in the first round six times this year, and has yet to win two matches in a row in 2012. Eventually, something has to give—perhaps it will be in Madrid. But there's no good reason to assume so.
Lucie Safarova (Quarterfinalist; lost to Azarenka): She's game and has played some solid tennis this year. A lefty, Safarova was a finalist on Har-Tru clay in Charleston, but she got no traction in her other clay-court event, Stuttgart, where she lost to Li in the first round.
It's conceivable that only two or three of these quarterfinalists will get as far in Madrid this year, and while it may be an unfortunate analogy to apply to world No. 2 Maria Sharapova, she is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. She started the year well and she gotten better and better. Plus, Sharapova coming off a big win in Stuttgart, where all eight of the WTA's Top 8 were in the draw.
Let's not forget world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, who hasn't lost to anyone but Azarenka this entire year, and is as close to a lock to make the quarters as you can get—provided her back troubles of last week are resolved. It's stunning that world Nos. 5, 6, and 7—respectively, Stosur, Wozniacki, and Marion Bartoli—were all shut out of the quarters last year (does anyone remember just how that happened?). It would be tempting fate not to pencil at least two of them into the elite eight this time, but Bartoli is already out, and you have to make Sharapova the favorite given recent history.