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Monday, April 6, 2009
We have learned that we have a lot to learn

Now that the second major chapter of the tennis year has been written, read and closed, we're entitled to ask: What takeaways do we have following those critical early-season, hard-court encounters at the BNP Paribas Open and Sony Ericsson Open (Indian Wells and Miami)?

On the men's side, the dominant theme is that Rafael Nadal is in command; he's pulling away from Roger Federer, and though Andy Murray is closing the gap with surprising speed, the upcoming clay-court season probably will enable Nadal to open up a substantial gap again.

Murray, who lost to Nadal at Indian Wells but beat everyone in Miami, should do well on clay, where he can employ the various and sundry weapons in his arsenal. But it would be impertinent to suggest he can stay on the pace Nadal sets on clay.

There's one interesting caveat here, though. The major tuneup for Roland Garros this year will be the new Madrid combined event. Right now, it's uncertain that Nadal will play Madrid. The reason is the difference in altitude between Madrid, which is high on a great plateau in Spain, and Paris. Nadal might not want to risk having to make the transition to altitude, and then back again, in the brief period between those two events.

Nadal still hasn't committed to playing Madrid; in fact, he has made a point of articulating his indecision. But if he doesn't play, that opens a big door for a number of players in Madrid, including the hard-charging Murray, who will do well when the ball flies with a little more zip, making clay-court tennis more like the hard-court game.

And factor this into Nadal's thinking: He has been so utterly dominant on clay for almost three years now that he just might decide it's time to take a break and enter Roland Garros on more rest than he has in the past (as if he needed any further advantage). Still, if Nadal skips Madrid, he might not accumulate his customary point differential, even if he wins in Paris.

Beyond that, was I the only one slightly alarmed to hear Federer proclaim relief that the hard-court season is over? (He said it after his loss to Miami finalist Novak Djokovic.) It was an odd confession, and we'll put it down to the distress he must have felt at having played perhaps the worst match of his career against Djokovic. But it's still hard to see how Federer could be looking forward to the clay season, given the disarray in his game.

And on the subject of disarray, you all saw Djokovic's game fall apart (with considerable help from Murray) in the Miami final. The long, rhythmic matches on clay might help him regain some of his lost form, but they might just as easily screw with his head and leave him even more confused.

On the women's side, watch out for Miami champ Victoria Azarenka. She's mobile, aggressive and consistent enough to clear out some of the pretenders near the top of the game, starting with the likes of Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva. Vera Zvonareva did well to win at Indian Wells, and she has a versatile game. But her performance in the desert might have been a career run, while Azarenka's win in Miami seemed more of a step in a logical progression to the top.

For American fans, the big question is this: Can Venus and Serena Williams, after lackluster spring campaigns, rally and make up lost ground? You know the answer to that question is another question: Do they really want to?