The tennis tours arrived in the capital of Spain with doubts and questions. Two weeks later, they leave the capital of Italy with a sense of order that seems both traditional and renewed. Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal started the clay swing slowly, but they’ll head to its final event, in the capital of France, in their familiar positions as Grand Slam favorites. These days, nothing stays unsure for long in tennis.
Here’s a review of Madrid and Rome, in the form of report cards. The grade reflects a player's performance at both tournaments. As always, I can't write about everyone. If you see anyone missing, please supply your own assessment.
Even as Serena announced that she was pulling out of her Madrid quarterfinal with a thigh injury, she said she was already “recovering fast.” She wasn’t kidding. The world No. 1 got down to business in Rome and wiped away any doubts that we, or at least I, might have had about her desire or fitness for a French Open repeat. She lost 11 games in her first three matches, and one set in the tournament, to Ana Ivanovic—and Serena beat Ana 6-1, 6-1 in the other two. There were no prolonged funks or sluggish moments all week; this time it seemed she just decided to make it look easy. A
Like Serena, when Djokovic pulled out of Madrid with nagging wrist pain, he was quick to reassure everyone that he would be ready for Rome. But just how ready wasn’t immediately clear in his play. He dropped sets to Philipp Kohlschreiber, David Ferrer, and Milos Raonic, and he was in a foul mood for much of the latter match. But Djokovic saved his very best for the very end. After dropping another set in the final to Rafael Nadal, he played with a mix of depth, pace, and accuracy that I don’t think we’ve ever seen from him, in such a sustained way, on clay before. Djokovic has been too good for Rafa since last fall; this time he proved he can still be too good for him on dirt as well. His timing—shot-wise and calendar-wise—couldn’t have been better. A
By the middle of the third set, as another Djokovic return of serve flew past him for a winner, all Rafa could do was stare over at his opponent as if to say, “Are you for real?” For once, Nadal was distinctly second-best on clay. Still, after his loss, Rafa said he was happy with his progress through Madrid and Rome, and he has a right to be; he won the former, reached the final of the latter, and put his earlier Barcelona loss to Nicolas Almagro in the rearview mirror.
In Rome, Nadal played his best, most confident tennis in the quarters against Andy Murray and the semis against Grigor Dimitrov. He wasn’t as good or as confident in the final against Djokovic, but he wasn’t bad, either. All in all, Rafa can go to Roland Garros with a mindset that he likes: He no longer needs to fear being “in decline”; yet he can also say, with something approaching a straight face, that’s he not the favorite. A-
Here’s another star, one currently ranked No. 8, who used these two tournaments to shore up her confidence before the Grand Slam stretch ahead. Fierce in Madrid, Sharapova couldn’t summon the same stubborn energy when she fell behind to Ana Ivanovic in Rome. But at the Caja, Maria showed again that if Serena slips (to someone else) on clay, she’ll be the favorite to hoist the hardware. A-
The newest member of the men’s Top 10 gave us a glimpse of much more in Madrid. There he outhit and outfought David Ferrer on his home turf, and, for the better part of two sets, outplayed Rafael Nadal in the same place. Did Nadal’s subsequent comeback from 2-4 down in the third against Murray in Rome take any of the shine off Nishikori's near-win over him in Madrid? Maybe, a little. What’s important is that we know Kei can play with anyone, anywhere now, and that big wins shouldn't be a surprise. It would be disappointing to find out in the coming weeks that Nishikori doesn’t believe the same thing himself by now. A-
Count Halep, along with Nishikori, as another member of the Gifted But Brittle Club. For the third time this year, the Romanian followed up a big result by pulling out of the next tournament. In Madrid, she showed off all of her skills in reaching the final and nearly beating Sharapova; in Rome, she withdrew with an abdominal injury. But like Nishikori, when this all-around talent is healthy and playing well, few players are more fun to watch. Whether her body knows it or not, tennis is in her DNA. A-
The Italian ended her Rome campaign in tears over an injured leg and another horrid loss to Serena. But by making her first final there, Errani pushed herself back up to No. 11. And you thought Maria didn’t like playing Williams. B+
She won’t win the French Open, but it’s no longer a joke to mention the 2008 champion among the contenders. After five years, Ana’s game is a match for her talent again. B+
Just when I wonder whether the guy can do anything other than serve, he reaches the semis in Rome and threatens Djokovic on clay. Raonic made the Djoker mad, and then let him off the hook in the second-set tiebreaker. B+
Little steps are the key to tennis, they say, and Dimitrov has taken one after the other in the course of his career so far. That was true again over these two weeks: By the time they were over he had moved up a year in age, to 23, and up two spots in the rankings, to No. 12. In Madrid, Dimitrov lost to Berdych; in Rome he beat Berdych and reached his first Masters semi. Where he was crushed to the brink of tears by Nadal. Little steps. B+
A semi, a quarter, three-set losses to Nishikori and Djokovic. That’s not progress, but at 32, that’s not exactly a slide, either. B
A semi, a quarter, losses to Sharapova and Jankovic. She did a lot of running and came out standing in the same place. It must have been worth it, though, to beat Svetlana Kuznetsova for the first time in six years. B
He may not have made himself a serious threat in Paris, but Murray found his game in his classic quarterfinal loss to Nadal in Rome. Is he ready to beat Rafa, a man he hadn't played in more than two years, in a big moment? Probably not. Is he rounding into form in time for the tournament that matters most to him, Wimbledon? Probably so. B
She qualified in Madrid, beat Errani, nearly beat Radwanska, and moved into the Top 50. How will she respond to the home-court pressure in Paris? Now it’s at least interesting to consider. B
She’s No. 2 in the world and a former French Open champion. So two quarterfinal defeats, to Sharapova and especially to Errani, qualifies as a disappointment. B-
Losses to Giraldo and Raonic, and a ranking at No. 14, are making Jo seem less relevant than he's been in a long time. Good thing he still has Paris. C
Over the last two weeks, Williams, Djokovic, and Nadal have moved back to the top of the contenders list for Paris; Wawrinka, meanwhile, has gone in the opposite direction. He followed up his title in Monte Carlo with upset losses to Dominic Thiem and Tommy Haas in Madrid and Rome. A new problem, a back injury, hurt Stan in the second match; but two old ones, consistency and shot selection, hurt him more. C-