Tag-team effort levels Nadal on clay

Updated: May 18, 2009

We have intrigue

MADRID -- Rafael Nadal remains the unshakeable favorite going into the French Open, but there's some extra intrigue after this weekend in the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open. Not one, but two players distinguished themselves against the King of Clay in the Spanish capital -- Novak Djokovic battled Nadal for more than four hours in the semifinals, and Roger Federer finally got a win against his rival in arms after five straight defeats.

Though Nadal was clearly tired from his efforts the previous day, Federer was impressive during his two-set win against the Spaniard in front of a partisan crowd. For the first time in a major match this year, the Swiss' serve and forehand held up strongly, as did his nerve. Federer saved all four break points he faced Sunday afternoon, including a 15-40 deficit when serving for the match.

"It's not the moment to get carried away, but it is definitely good for my confidence, especially beating Rafa in the final," a candid Federer said. "I am very excited about going to Paris whereas a couple of weeks ago I was still a little bit unsure about my game and not sure if I could win the French."

For Djokovic, it was again a case of being so close yet so far. The Serb held three match points in a final-set tiebreaker against Nadal but went down for the third time in as many clay Masters events this season. "Next time I'll probably take two rackets on the match point and try to hit with both of them," Djokovic said after Saturday's defeat.

Nadal in Paris will be a different proposition from the battered Nadal who struggled with the effects of Madrid's high altitude, but his march to a fifth straight title at the French Open no longer looks quite as straightforward.

The real No. 1?

AP Photo/Juan Manuel Serrano

Dinara Safina might have established herself as the prohibitive favorite heading into the French Open.

Who says there's no dominant No. 1 in women's tennis these days? Dinara Safina has assumed the mantle with pride, winning 14 of her 15 matches since reaching the top spot. That includes back-to-back titles at the two biggest clay events ahead of the French Open -- the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome and this past week's combined event in Madrid.

Ironically, Safina has not lost a match since Serena Williams called herself the "real" No. 1. And Williams has not won one.

"I have come to find my place. I feel comfortable being No. 1," Safina said. "It was my dream from the beginning to be No.1 and I always believed I could get it. Once I got it, I was ready for it. That's why I think I'm enjoying it so much. Since I became No.1 I've played better and better."

The Russian is now the leading favorite for the French Open title, and winning it would carry the extra reward of ending the persistent questions about whether she should really be ranked above Williams. Safina has yet to win a Grand Slam title while Williams is the current U.S. Open and Australian Open champ, having defeated Safina on the way to both titles.

Apart from Safina's recent consistency, however, the lack of order remains. At least half a dozen players are viable candidates for the French Open crown and about an equal number are capable of producing a big upset.

Rankings rumblings

Andy Murray reached No. 3 this past week, the highest a British player has stood in the ATP rankings since they were established in 1973. Ironically, it comes just as Djokovic, the victim of Murray's ascent, is enjoying a resurgence. But the rankings measure performance over 12 months, not two, so down went the Serb to No. 4.

The demotion prompted Djokovic to note how "cruel" the ranking system is, but Murray isn't buying it. "I don't think it was a problem for the last few years; I think that it has only become a problem for Novak in the last few weeks," Murray dryly noted.

(Asked for his take, Nadal said he believes the ranking system should be broadened to measure results over two years, not one.)

But the real dissent on rankings comes from the rank-and-file pros, a number of whom dislike the new points distribution adopted by the ATP tour this season. With more weight now given to title victories and finals, players feel the new system rewards the occasional hot streak more than consistent results.

"The best of the bad ones"

That's how No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro playfully described himself in relation to the Big Four of Nadal, Federer, Murray and Djokovic. But he went on to contradict his own statement by defeating Murray in the Madrid quarterfinals, getting his second win against the quartet this year. He also vanquished Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.

Murray's defeat again narrowly prevented all four top seeds from reaching the semifinals. All the biggest events so far this year (the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid) have featured three of the top four in the final four.

The consistency extends further down. The ATP's Greg Sharko noted during Madrid: "This is the fourth time in 2009 that seven of the top 10 players in the South African Airways ATP Rankings have reached the quarterfinals. Last year, the most top 10 players to reach the quarterfinals was six."

Singing les bleus

Richard Gasquet is suspended, Gael Monfils is injured, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is struggling. Alize Cornet is in crisis, Marion Bartoli has been unraveling. It's safe to say the French brigade is not in the best of shape entering Paris, but it was Amelie Mauresmo who kept the French flag in Madrid with an unexpected run to the semifinals.

The two-time Grand Slam champ has been prone to choky performances at Roland Garros, having never gone beyond the quarterfinals. Now 29 and back in the top 20 after almost quitting last year, she hopes things will be different this time.

"After a couple of years feeling not so good, at least I will arrive feeling a little bit better 'tennistically,'" she said with verbal inventiveness. "That's already a little different from the last couple of years. And then yes, it was always a little bit difficult for me and tough to play with more expectations from people -- and myself.

"I just hope I learned from each year and hopefully I will be a little more relaxed and ready to perform at my best."

The home crowds might need her to be just that.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.


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Quote of the Week

Safina

"I guess they're jealous that I'm so young and No. 1. I don't know." -- Dinara Safina, when asked why others were sniping about her No. 1 position.

An American already in Paris

Roddick

James Blake has opted to go home between Madrid and Paris, but Andy Roddick headed to the French capital straight after losing to Federer in the Madrid quarterfinals.

"I've been home too much. My wife hates me already," joked the newly married Roddick.

Opening the magic box

La Caja Mágica

The beginning of tennis at Madrid's La Caja Mágica (Magic Box) was hailed as just that -- a beginning.

The pros generally described the site as having "a lot of potential," but also had a laundry list of complaints about the opening edition of the event -- unfinished, unwatered, unavailable practice courts; glare in the stadium from the red, translucent upper seats and metal corporate boxes; cramped locker rooms; on-site traffic problems; and, naturally, lack of laundry service. (The misadventures of the event's press transport are a story for another time.)

Owner and promoter Ion Tiriac promised the problems would be solved. "Give me two years and we'll discuss once again," he said. "Definitely whatever is wrong just throw it back to me."

The well-staffed event did pull off other elements in style, and the site itself drew many plaudits. It houses three stadiums with separate retractable roofs inside a single structure that was built at a public cost of more than $250 million.

Shiny steel and concrete lend the Box a sleek, modern look, though the surrounding metal mesh walls create a closed-in feel more suited to an indoor event. This year, at least, the grounds were a bit bare-boned. Official visits and special events delayed construction in the last few days leading up to the event, forcing the courts to be relaid right before the start of play and leaving no time for finishing touches like plants and paint. But there were significant improvements made during the week itself, indicating more changes by next year.

The blue-clay battle

Blue clay

In the long term, one thing that might work against the tournament's bold ambitions is its penchant for gimmickry. No event can have pretensions to Grand Slam status if it is perceived as being more about entertainment than competition.

A few years ago, as an indoor event in the fall, Madrid began using models as ball girls. The move earned tremendous publicity at the time, but the effect has faded and the only attention the models got this year came when one of them fainted during Nadal's opening match.

The latest push is for blue clay, which would allow the tournament to coordinate with the colors of its sponsor. The organizers were all set to go ahead with it this year, in fact, but failed to acquire proper clearance with the ATP Tour.

Hard courts vary in color from tournament to tournament, but clay events have never departed from their natural brick-dust look.

Tiriac insists there is nothing stopping him from installing the new-look surface, which plays the same as red clay. "We try to do something new every year," the former player turned billionaire entrepreneur said at the end of this year's event. "There is nothing in the ATP rules preventing me from choosing the color of the surface.

"It's the future of our sport."

But many players are firmly against it, arguing that it is unnecessary and will create dissonance among the public. Nadal led the opposition with a thoughtful and eloquent condemnation in Spanish, with Federer also voicing disagreement with the idea.

"I'm totally against it," Nadal said. "I think that the clay season is one of the most historic in tennis and the clay court is red, not blue. Tennis is not just show business; there's history and tradition. And that says it's red. There are symbolic things that the sporting world should preserve."

The tournament set up one of the practice courts with blue clay for the players to try, with Andy Roddick and Nikolay Davydenko among those who had a hit on the incongruous-looking, velvetlike surface. "I don't care what color it is. It'll make it feel more like a hard court at least," Roddick commented later.

Madrid native Fernando Verdasco was one of the few to support the move. "I was training for about two hours and I liked it, to be honest," he said. "I told [tournament manager] Gerard [Tsobanian] as well that I liked and that I hope in the future we could play on blue courts and that Madrid could be known as the tournament that innovates with this."

The proposal will be resubmitted to the ATP for next year.