First Ball In, 5/5: Madrid's Early Days

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Today we’re debuting a new feature, "First Ball In," a table-setting post that will run from Monday to Friday every week, and which I’ll be writing most of the time. During the European clay season, FBI will appear each afternoon at roughly 4:00 P.M. Eastern time; when the tours are in the States, it will go up at 10:00 A.M. Eastern. In it, we’ll review that day’s play, preview the next day’s, and comment on any articles or developments that have caught our eye. 


Monday Review

Whether it’s the color of the surface or its place on the tour calendar, Ion Tiriac’s tournament always pushes the limit of what the sport will tolerate. That includes its length; the Madrid Masters, which has two singles draws to squeeze in, stretches over two full weekends and conflicts with the two ATP tournaments held before it. By Monday, the men were into their second day, and the women into their third. Not even Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova were immune from opening-weekend duty. It didn't seem to bother them; each surrendered just three games on their way to easy wins. 

Most of the rest of the women’s draw has gone to form, with a couple of semi-notable exceptions. Unseeded Sam Stosur’s win over ninth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova counts as an upset in terms of rankings, but not in terms of their head to head—the Aussie is now 10-0 in sets against the Slovakian. Of more potential future interest was Caroline Garcia’s win over Angelique Kerber. Granted, the German retired down 6-3, 2-0; but Garcia, after her three-win weekend for France over the U.S. in Fed Cup, is a player to watch at the moment. 

In the two most interesting first-round meetings today on the WTA side, experience triumphed over youth: Agnieszka Radwanska ground down Eugenie Bouchard (see my Racquet Reaction here), and Jelena Jankovic out-steadied Elina Svitolina. The 19-year-old Svitolina’s feistiness is an asset, but it’s always just an unforced error or two from descending into self-defeating impatience. In the final game, Svitolina double-faulted three times and sailed a frustrated final backhand 10 feet over the baseline on match point.

Things were quieter on the men’s side, where all four seeds in action—Kei Nishikori, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner, and Mikhail Youzhny—advanced. The day’s most notable result may have been 20-year-old Dominic Thiem’s 6-4, 6-2 win over Dmitry Tursunov; Thiem's next match, against Stan Wawrinka, has all the makings of a slugfest.

As for the No. 1 seed, Rafael Nadal spent the day in a suit, rather than shorts, in central Madrid. There the mayor named Rafa an Honorary Citizen and Adopted Son of the city. The man is already Spanish, no?

Of course, the biggest news on the men’s side is who isn’t in the draw. Novak Djokovic withdrew yesterday, citing the same right-wrist pain that hampered him in Monte Carlo. Let’s hope this is the last event he misses. As we’ve already seen with Juan Martin del Potro this season, wrist injuries can drag on; and no matter how much optimism the player tries to convey from week to week, they can end very badly. The clay season wouldn’t be the same without Djokovic’s quest for Roland Garros as its overarching storyline.


OOP Analysis

See the full Tuesday Order of Play here.

It’s customary in Madrid for the women to be given the less-than-coveted opening two singles slots on center court, starting at 11: 00 in the morning. The Spanish tennis public never seem quite ready for them at that hour. We’ll see if an all-Chinese battle between Li Na and Jie Zheng, and a virtually all-American battle between Maria Sharapova and Christina McHale, can rouse them. 

The competition will be tough. Stadium 3 seems like the place to be for eye-opening early-day entertainment—whether it turns out to be explosive, dazzling, frightening, or depressing entertainment, we’ll find out. Ernests Gulbis vs. Jerzy Janowicz begins the proceedings, followed by Fabio Fognini vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov. Call it the tennis version of a four-way pile-up.

Night match to watch: Thiem vs. Wawrinka. Last year on this court, in this round, Grigor Dimitrov knocked off Novak Djokovic. Is something similar possible here?

Doubles team of the week: Tomas Berdych and John Isner. The Twin Tower Odd Couple play Jonathan Erlich and Lukas Rosol. If you watch, whatever you do, don’t compare Berdych to his countryman Rosol. The Birdman will hear you, and he doesn't like it.


For Your Reading Pleasure...

—Richard Gasquet makes the wave of the day, with an interview in French sports journal L’Equipe. According to partial translations by photographer Adeline Auger on her Twitter feed, highlights from Tragic Richard include:

“I would never want to become a TV commentator; 90 percent of them only say stupid things.”

“Federer is not as confident as he seems. Same as Nadal. Djokovic, on the contrary, really believes in himself.”

“I’m 100 percent convinced that Nadal and Federer have never used drugs. All the players that are ranked ahead of me are clean.”

“I recently turned down an offer to become the ambassador of an extramarital dating website. Already had tough times, so no thanks.”

On why he moved from Lacoste to Le Coq Sportif: "Let's be honest, they offered me more money."

—According to USA Today, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling didn’t want to sign J.J. Redick to a big contract because Redick is white—and thus, in Sterling’s mind, no good.


R.I.P. Elena Baltacha

Finally, tennis fans were stunned this weekend by the news that Baltacha, 30, the former British No. 1, had died of liver disease at age 30. Andy Murray led his fellow pros in a silent tribute to Baltacha in Madrid, and remembrances from other players flowed in on Twitter. 

I didn’t know Baltacha well, but on hearing of her death I immediately thought back to watching her play at Eastbourne just last summer. On a tiny side court, it was impossible not to get a visceral sense of her intensity and presence as a competitor and an athlete—she fairly burst out of that tournament's quiet, staid, seaside scene. Which only makes it more shocking, and awful, that all of that intensity, all of that life, is no longer with us.

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