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.

When Rafael Nadal came to Madrid last week, he was a reeling No. 1. Now that the three players seeded just below him, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, and Roger Federer, have all made their exits, it feels like Rafa is the last man standing.

As if the departure of his rivals wasn’t enough, Nadal got a boost from a friend this afternoon. His buddy Juan Monaco did what he could for Rafa’s confidence. After today’s 6-1, 6-0 victory, Nadal has won the last eight sets over Monaco, 6-2, 6-0, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0.

Believe it or not, Rafa still appeared to be nervous at the start, burying a tentative forehand into the net when he had an early break point. We’ll see if this win is enough to put some of his doubts behind him. Nadal faces Jarrko Nieminen next. They’ve played 18 sets against each other; Nieminen has won one, in 2006.

Not Taking a Knee

Whatever you think of her skills or her tactics, no one can say Caroline Wozniacki lacks tenacity and persistence. But how much is too much? While many players are quick to pull the ripcord before a major, Wozniacki hung on against Roberta Vinci today despite hobbling with a bad left knee for much of the match. According to a TV translation, she complained to her father about the pain on a changeover, while he told her to go after Vinci’s backhand. In the end, Wozniacki served and volleyed her way to a 6-3, 6-3 loss. Hopefully not before she did any more damage to her knee.

Is Black Heart Too...Nice?


First Ball In, 5/7: Friends and Nemeses

First Ball In, 5/7: Friends and Nemeses

He’s been called a cad, in code, by Serena Williams off the court, but Grigor Dimitrov is kind to his opponents on it. Earlier this year, in a match against Ernests Gulbis in Indian Wells, Dimitrov criticized the chair umpire for not warning Gulbis before he served him a time violation. Today, in his razor-thin win over Marius Copil, Dimitrov was prepared to overrule an out call in Copil’s favor, but the chair umpire stepped in to say that—sorry, Grigor— Copil’s shot really had been wide.

Dimitrov won in a third-set tiebreaker, and his gentlemanliness hasn’t kept him from reaching No. 14 in the world. It also happens to be a pleasure to see a nice guy succeed. Could he be helped by letting some of the inner blackness out? Hopefully we won't need to find out.

Big Man, Tiny Margins

We hear it all the time: “the margins are so small in the modern game.” John Isner, he of the major serve and minor return, takes this concept to ridiculous heights, no pun intended. Against Marinko Matosevic today, Isner won the first set 11-9 in a tiebreaker, lost the second 7-5 in a tiebreaker, and won the third set in a runaway rout, 7—games, not points—to 5. Isner lost the second set because, at 4-4 in the breaker, he hit a forehand that clipped the tape, popped up, and fell back on his side of the net. He won the third set because, at 6-5, 30-30, Matosevic hit a forehand that landed an inch wide.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Watch While They Beat Themselves

Agnieszka Radwanska, after six straight defeats, finally found a way to defeat Svetlana Kuznetsova for the first time since 2008. Or at least she found a way to let Kuznetsova beat herself. Radwanska played brilliant, aggressive tennis through the first set and a half, yet Kuznetsova clawed her way back and held three match points in the third-set tiebreaker. On the second of them, she took a lollipop Radwanska serve, wheeled around for a winning forehand...and drilled it into the net. Radwanska won the tiebreaker 8-6.

See Thursday’s full Order of Play here.

The top men’s seeds are mostly gone, but there’s still some magic scattered around the box.


First Ball In, 5/7: Friends and Nemeses

First Ball In, 5/7: Friends and Nemeses

Unlikely Dirtballers: Li Na vs. Sloane Stephens. The day’s opening match on center court pits two unpredictable shotmakers who logically shouldn’t thrive on clay, but do. They’ve never played before.

Unlikely Dirtballers II: Maria Sharapova vs. Sam Stosur. Like Li and Stephens, these two big hitters have played their best tennis on clay in recent years—the surface appears to be more about power more than consistency on the women’s side these days. Sharapova leads their head to head by a surprisingly lopsided 12-2.

Flash Against Bash: Tomas Berdych vs. Grigor Dimitrov. The lower-ranked Dimitrov, oddly, has won each of their two previous matches.

Beasts Big and Small: David Ferrer vs. John Isner. The American has vowed to do better away from home; this will be a test of that resolve. Ferrer leads their head to head 4-1.

Future Now: Milos Raonic vs. Kei Nishikori. They've played once; Nishikori won.

The Follow-Up: Dominic Thiem vs. Feliciano Lopez

Family Affair: Petra Kvitova vs. Lucie Safarova

Confidence Boost, Day II: Rafael Nadal vs. Jarkko Nieminen. As I wrote above, they've played 18 sets; Nieminen has won one, in 2006.

We’ve seen a lot of statistical analysis in sports over the last few years, but The Atlantic, in a semi-serious, fairly entertaining piece of historical research, targets an odd and possibly unlucky number for Grand Slam champions: 13. Is this why Rafael Nadal is having problems? Because he’s trying to get over the 13-major hump? Others have struggled before him, though I’d wait until after the French Open before getting officially spooked.


It's mine. I'm proud to say it I share it with, among others, Eva Peron, Traci Lords, Epstein from Welcome Back, Kotter, Johnny Unitas, and our own Ryan Harrison and Ajla Tomljanovic.

I won't be spending the entire day watching tennis from Madrid. I'm going to have my first dinner at a Manhattan institution, La Grenouille, this evening. If nothing else, I hear the flowers are nice.