REUTERS/Albert Gea via Daylife
Well, well, it’s been a while. The European clay court season is in full gear and I barely dipped my toes in. (I blame the day job, but I won’t dwell on that.) As we get closer to the blue courts of Madrid, I’m suddenly ready to dive in. So, how’s the water?
Here are the stories that are sticking so far.
Nadal is back. . .but is it enough? Rafa’s back to his winning ways on clay, winning Monte Carlo last week for a jaw-dropping 8th time (and breaking a 10 month title drought) and this weekend winning his 7th Barcelona title. He took out David Ferrer 7-6(1), 7-5 in Sunday’s final. Ferrer continues to impress as someone who is sooo close, yet of course Nadal is already there. The bigger win came last week, in a relative rout of Novak Djokovic: 6-3, 6-1. It was his first win over Nole in the last eight matches they’ve played, all finals. The win was complicated by the news that Novak was mourning the death of his grandfather. Nole’s since admitted to “having no emotional energy left” in Monte Carlo and has pulled our of his own tournament in Belgrade this week. While there’s no doubt that Rafa won Monte Carlo fair and square and was in fine enough form to pull it off no matter what Nole’s emotional state, I don’t think the result means so much. This win feels like the wins Roger’s had over Rafa in finals. A bit of hope, a bit of revenge, but. . .the doubt’s still there. I found this quote, coming after Rafa won today, interesting (via the ATP):
“The emotions are always high, but probably each year they get a bit higher as you are one year older and you don’t know how many chances you are going to have left.”
Rafa’s 25 years old. It seems a bit premature to be talking like this, but I think it shows where he’s at, mentally and physically at the moment. Disconcerting, no?
One other result of note in Barcelona this week: Andy Murray’s 4-6, 6-7 defeat to Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals. At this point. . .well that’s the thing, it’s hard to place Andy Murray at any point, in particular. He looks lost.
Rafa and Nole will have the opportunity to face each other in the finals of Madrid, which starts next week. This is the stadium where Nole cracked the Rafa code on clay, beating the Spaniard for the first time on the surface in last year’s final. Nole later called it the best match of his life on clay. But Djokovic still has one step left, one final “greatest match” to play vs. Rafa: the French Open final. Madrid will set the stage nicely (if only it weren’t so blue!)
Of course, Roger Federer will also be in Madrid, making his seasonal debut on the dirt. I’m glad he’s well-rested, but this season’s proved that Roger’s actually at his best when he’s match tough. Will he have enough time to recapture that fighting spirit before Paris?
THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/GettyImages via Daylife
Speaking of fighting spirits – Maria Sharapova’s is never in doubt. But though her spirit’s always willing, well, her game has been weak – at least when it’s matched up against Vika Azarenka in finals. Until her breakthrough win today in the finals of Stuttgart, Maria had lost all four of the previous finals they’d played against one another. The 3-6, 0-6 demolition she suffered this season in the Australian Open final still gives me the willies, but Maria claims to have been nothing but motivated by the debacle:
“I had lost the last few previous encounters with Victoria, so I was extremely motivated today,” Sharapova said after the win today (via wtatennis.com). “When I got the chance to go out and play her again I knew I had to change a few things. Before I was maybe a little bit impatient and went for a bit too much sometimes, but this time I was really patient. I was aggressive but consistent when I had to be against her.”
Maria, who once likened her movement on clay to “a cow on ice” has thrived on the surface since her comeback from injury. Last year she won Rome and made the semifinals of the French, where she lost to eventual champion, Li Na. Like Novak, a win in Paris this year would complete her career Slam. Maria’s making all the right moves on clay at the moment and she’s setting up some intriguing possibilities for Paris.
And finally, a quick note on one of my favorite players, Gilles Simon, who is steadily returning to the form that put him at No. 6 in the world a few years ago. I saw Gilles play in Indian Wells earlier this season and noticed that he had much of his old spark back. Being French, Simon’s defining quality is a bit elusive, a touch je ne sais quoi. But the results are there: a title this weekend in Bucharest, a strong showing vs. Nadal in last week’s Monte Carlo semis, and a current world ranking of No. 11. His game continues to surprise and delight, and we know from history that he’s capable of beating the best on any surface. He’s going to be the French hero at this year’s Roland Garros.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This week the ATP plays three tournaments: Munich, Belgrade and Estoril. The ladies are in Estoril and Budapest. Roger, Rafa and Nole sit this week out. That’s one way to make me look forward to the blue clay!