There’s been a lot of talk over the last year, some of it done in this column, about Maria Sharapova’s mid-career transformation on clay. Suddenly, instead of slipping, the Cow on Ice was sliding, a trick that never comes naturally to a hard-courter like her. Instead of belting the ball at the lines, the woman once derided as a “mindless ball basher” was retrieving, defending, constructing points, and winning 23 straight matches on red clay.
There was, of course, one small caveat to this story: She hadn’t beaten Serena Williams on the surface. Their only meeting on clay in the last year had come on the blue version laid down in Madrid in 2012, and Serena had won that easily. On Sunday, Sharapova had a chance at a rematch in the same city; a chance, on the real red stuff, to prove that she had earned the right to be called the Queen of Dirt.
Leave it to Serena to take all of that away from Maria, in 78 minutes and two quick sets. Williams has now won their last 12 matches, dating back to 2005, and 20 of the last 22 sets they’ve played. But this must have been among the most discouraging of those defeats for Maria. She had taken a rare set in their last encounter, in Miami, and had talked afterward about how she felt like she was making progress against her nemesis. Sunday was a regression: Not only did Serena allow her just five games, but she made Sharapova look like she had forgotten all that she had learned about clay-court tennis.
Afterward, asked to assess what makes Serena so tough, Sharapova focused on her power. That may sound obvious, but it's still the most relevant factor; Serena's easily the biggest hitter out there, Maria said. Big enough that Sharapova had to lurch and lunge after the ball. She was off-balance and a step behind from the first shot of each point, on both sides of the net. Serena’s serve, as it always does, handcuffed her, and so did her returns. I’m not sure I’ve seen Serena stand in and knock off Sharapova’s serves with as much blatant ease as she did on Sunday. No amount of improved play on clay was going to help Maria prepare for those rockets. Maria won just 36 percent of points on her second serve.
Watching the Madrid final, I’d say the Williams-Sharapova matchup—it can’t be elevated into anything close to a “rivalry” at the moment—hinges on two things, one physical and one mental. Because Serena is the stronger player from the ground, and she’s very tough to break, Sharapova must serve her best to stand any chance. Yesterday she made just 62 percent of her first serves and double-faulted five times in her first three service games (she finished with eight doubles for the match). Sharapova’s serve, like her clay-court game, has improved over the years, but both need to improve a lot more to handle Serena.
The second, and even more obvious, factor that separates these two is the mentality that each brings to the court when she faces the other. There’s game-sharpening focus on one side, and a crippling lack of belief on the other. In Miami, Sharapova was scolded by her coach, Thomas Hogstedt, for mentioning that Serena had begun to play well in the second set—he didn’t want her worrying about Williams’ game, or using it as an excuse. But after all of the losses, who could blame her? As for Serena, in her previous match, against Anabel Medina Garrigues, she had been sluggish and unfocused, bageled in the second and on the verge of defeat in the third. Facing Sharapova, Serena was exactly the opposite; beating her is a challenge that never gets old. And when Williams did fall behind 1-3 in the second set, she righted herself immediately with a forehand winner and a fist-pump in Maria’s direction. Sharapova won just one more game.
Afterward, Serena said that Madrid, despite being one of the WTA’s four top-level mandatory events, “wasn’t the biggest title.” But it was good preparation for the big one that she wants coming up, in Paris. In 2012, Serena had a great run on clay in the spring, and she has matched it in 2013 with titles in Charleston and Madrid. But last season she arrived at Roland Garros having not won a Grand Slam title in two years—the pressure was different in Paris, where she hadn’t been a champion in a decade, and she felt it right away. Since then Serena has won two majors, Olympic gold, and returned to No. 1. And she has dominated the defending French Open champion on clay.
If you’re looking for a theme to women’s tennis this spring, it might be this: Anything Maria can do, Serena can do better.
Rafael Nadal, unlike Serena Williams, seemed to think that winning in Madrid was a very big deal indeed. You could see it in the way he fell flat on his back after beating Stan Wawrinka in the final, a celebratory flop that he generally reserves for the most meaningful and emotional victories. You could hear it in the way he spoke about reclaiming his home-country Masters event after the blue-clay debacle of 2012: “Being able to play here in Madrid and being able to win in front of all my people, is something really special,” Rafa said.
But well before the end, you could sense Nadal’s will to win this one. On a deuce point at the start of the second set, he came to the net and won a point by fending off two Wawrinka passing shots with two frying-pan forehand volleys; Nadal hit them with the racquet perpendicular to the ground, swinging from high to low. That’s not exactly how you’re taught to do it, but it got the job done. When Wawrinka’s third pass went wide, Nadal turned, bent down, let out a roar, and finished with a fist-pump/leg kick combination. And this was a deuce point.
Nadal, who dropped one set during the week, played most of this tournament with a similar single-mindedness. By the time he walked out for his first match on Wednesday, the man who had beaten him a couple of weeks ago in Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic, was already out. From that result, Rafa was reminded that no player was safe; perhaps more important, he knew the tournament was his to win. Wawrinka made for a much less imposing final-round opponent than Djokovic: In his nine matches against Stan, Nadal has yet to drop a set.
As with Wawrinka’s countryman, Roger Federer, it’s the one-handed backhand that kills him. Nadal went at that side whenever he could with his dive-bomb cross-court forehand. As the match wore on, Wawrinka tried to run around and take those shots on his forehand side, but that wasn’t a feasible, let alone winning, proposition in the long run. A few times, after going for big shots and missing, Wawrinka could do nothing but shrug. Even a one-hander as strong as Stan's is a liability against Rafa.
“He’s a lefty,” Wawrinka said, “and puts so much topspin on his forehand, so I have to play my backhand always high. So I need to have perfect timing to play a strong shot...If I don’t have the legs to get there, I have no chance to come back in the point.”
Nadal has now played seven tournaments since returning to the tour in February. He has reached the final of all of them, and won five. He’s second in the Race to London, only 130 points behind Djokovic and 1,100 points ahead of Andy Murray. He says he played his best match of this week in the final, and that’s probably true. His only slip-up, only show of vulnerability, in Madrid came in his quarterfinal against David Ferrer. That day Nadal hit his backhand poorly—it improved in the semis and final—and was two points from his first loss to Ferrer on clay in nine years. Ferrer was able to do a little bit of what Djokovic does against him, opening up the court with his cross-court/down-the-line backhand combination.
Does this mean Nadal will be more vulnerable to Ferrer in Rome (they’re scheduled to play in the quarterfinals again)? I don’t think so. I doubt Rafa will hit his backhand that badly against him again. Next obligatory-but-mostly-unanswerable question: Does winning Madrid give Rafa more confidence against Djokovic (they’re scheduled to play in the semis in Rome)? I doubt that as well. Nadal’s game, he said last week, is close to peak level again, but the match-up against Djokovic is unlike any other for him. He lost their last round, in Monte Carlo, where Djokovic took the initiative early. Nadal will have to find a way, as he did on clay in 2012, to return the favor and turn their baseline dynamic in his favor again. Beating Wawrinka meant doing what he always does; beating Djokovic will mean doing something different, and probably better.
But that’s a story for a different day. For now, Nadal has his 40th clay-court title, one that he obviously relished. You might, after all of the clay wins over the years, wonder why he would be so pumped up to win one more. Here's one reason: Rafa’s bad times have historically made him appreciate the good, and he had the worst time of all while he was sidelined for the second half of 2012. He also knows that his knee pain will almost surely sideline him again at some point.
So while his partner in dominance this weekend, Serena Williams, was looking ahead, Rafa was happy for the here and now. Happy to be with his people, happy to win with a forehand or a frying pan, happy to be running, with the pain in check, on red clay again.