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This week we’re debuting a new feature, First Ball In, that will run every Monday to Friday, and which I’ll be writing most of the time. During the European clay season, the post will appear each afternoon at 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 the day’s play, preview the next day’s, and comment on any articles or developments that have caught our eye. 


Friday Review

Today the top women, as they have been all week, were handed the early time slots on center court. A little later, their lesser-known WTA colleagues were sent to the second show court while Rafael Nadal reigned inside the big arena. To a degree, today’s schedule was inevitable; the women will play the first final on Sunday, so you can’t feature one of them in a night match this late in the event. But it’s still unfortunate, because if anything the WTA has fielded the stronger tournament in Madrid this time. And it was the lesser-known women who made for the more entertaining viewing today.

Hailing Halep

For the traditionalist tennis fan, Simona Halep would seem to tick off all the boxes. She doesn’t make noise, she doesn’t dawdle, she doesn’t abuse the fist-pump or the chair ump, she doesn’t whine too much, and I’ve never seen her call for her coach on a changeover. Instead, the Romanian, very much unlike her countryman Ilie Nastase, gets down to business in an unassuming way.

Today Halep had her visor pulled unfashionably low against the Madrid sun. It must have helped, because she saw the ball, and exactly what she had to do with it, pretty much perfectly in a 6-2, 6-2 win over Ana Ivanovic. 

What tennis fans should love most about Halep is how natural she is as a player. There isn’t a mechanical move in her arsenal. Halep doesn’t play in repetitive patterns, and she can hit winners from anywhere, to anywhere, at any stage of a point, yet she doesn't overswing often. And her hitchless serve is more than respectable for someone who’s 5’7” (and who looks shorter than that).

With Serena Williams ailing, and Victoria Azarenka still sidelined, Halep could climb into the French Open title conversation in the next couple of weeks. Here’s hoping nobody says that her lack of star power is bad for women’s tennis.


Looking for Garcia, Finding Aga Again

Yesterday I put France’s Caroline Garcia down as a “figure of curiosity.” She mostly lived up to that billing on Friday. Despite hitting 55 winners, she still lost to Aga Radwanska in three sets. Garcia is clearly getting better, and she proved she can hit through even the best retrievers on clay today. The key for her is finishing; she has struggled mightily with nerves in the past. And when the Frenchwoman had a chance to break Radwanska and get back into the third set today, she drilled two returns into the middle of the net. I’m prepared to believe that Garcia, now ranked No. 51, can reach the Top 15—she's still only 20 years old—but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Andy Murray’s prediction for her will never come true: She’ll never be No. 1.

Yet in the end, to me, this match was less a sign of Garcia’s potential than it was a reminder of how good Radwanska is. In consistency, placement, and thoughtfulness, she was one shot better than her opponent, and one move ahead of her, for most of the day. 


OOP Analysis

See Saturday’s Order of Play here

There's no Serena and no Vika in the semis this weekend, but the WTA’s Premier Mandatory events, which show off the tour's depth of appeal, don’t necessarily need all of the biggest names to survive. Is it possible for the WTA to pull this trick off a couple more times a year? The Masters Series, which brings all of the ATP's stars together eight times every season, helped facilitate the men's Golden Age. Right now, the WTA gathers everyone just four times a year—three and a half, really, if you consider that one of the “mandatory” events is Indian Wells, where Serena and Venus Williams haven’t been seen in more than a decade.

Petra Kvitova vs. Simona Halep: Kvitova won this tournament in her halcyon 2011, but Halep won their only meeting, on hard courts last summer in New Haven, 6-2, 6-2. Today Halep was nearly perfect, while Kvitova got a reprieve and a rest when Serena Williams withdrew from their quarterfinal. The obvious thing to say is that the match will be on Kvitova’s racquet. I’ll be curious to see whether Halep can make that untrue.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Maria Sharapova: The Russian leads the Pole 9-2, and is 3-0 against her on clay. But they’ve had their battles, including a titanic three-setter in Istanbul in 2012. After her comeback win over Li Na today, Sharapova may have the advantage of feeling like she shouldn’t even be there in the first place. That usually helps.

Rafael Nadal vs. Roberto Bautista Agut: These two countryman have never played. On the upside for RBA, his two-handed backhand and pesky, flat-hitting style could theoretically trouble Rafa. On the downside, this is clay, and he’s from Spain.

David Ferrer vs. Kei Nishikori: Knish won their last match, in Miami, 11-9 in a third-set tiebreaker. Both guys looked good today. The prediction for Saturday is: Pain.


For Your Reading Pleasure

In what will be good news for fans of Novak Djokovic, and should be good news for all tennis fans, the Serb says his wrist should be ready to go in Rome this coming week. I hope this is true; I don't want the words "Juan Martin del Potro" to get any louder in my head.


Tip for Weekend Warriors

I mentioned this in my Racquet Reaction on Rafael Nadal’s win over Tomas Berdych today, but if you’re planning to play tennis yourself this weekend—my outdoor club here in New York opened today—you might take this little page from Rafa's tactical handbook:

When you’re pushed wide, or forced to run to your forehand side, try to always send your next shot back high and crosscourt. The temptation, which many pros give in to, is to attempt the thrillingly low-percentage winner down the line. If you really want to win, stick with the safe and boring play. 

I realize that Nadal spent most of the second set today contradicting his own pattern by going for the down-the-line forehand, and making it. That shot should come with a “don’t try this at home” warning at the bottom of the screen.

Have a good weekend.

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