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Sunday, May 13, 2012
Federer, Serena come to win -- always

They couldn't be more different if someone were actually writing parts for them, but Roger Federer and Serena Williams have one thing in common: When they come to play, they come to win.

That was strikingly evident this weekend in Madrid, where the two emerged from a chaotic and unsettled battlefield to claim the singles titles. The tournament started with major questions about the blue clay, but though peevish, disgruntled No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal were bounced out of the draw, Federer and Williams demonstrated a superior willingness to play the hand dealt to them, and they ended up making the blue-clay refusniks look silly.

It's not like Federer and Williams had any great love for the new blue clay, either. It was described by most players as firmer (harder) underfoot than the familiar red clay, the way Roland Garros has been paved. At the same time, most also agreed that the top dressing on the court was more slippery (think of those loose clay granules as tiny ball bearings scattered on the court).

That this faster clay is more friendly to the style of Roger and Serena is for certain, but it's only a partial explanation for why they flourished. Neither of them welcomed the change. (Tennis is not exactly a change-friendly sport. If it were up to the players, there still would be no tiebreaker.) Serena went as far as pronouncing the blue clay "ridiculous" after her first day on it, although she liked the idea that the stains on her clothing and socks would be a pale blue rather than an icky, dried-blood red.

Federer, unlike his two main rivals, took a more wait-and-see attitude. In this supremely versatile and flexible player, that ultimately translated into a wait-and-see-and-win attitude. This isn't the first time Federer has shown that he's more than capable of biding his time and then surprising those critics who are eager to write him off.

In the final, Federer met another player whose chances were enhanced by the blue clay, Tomas Berdych. Entrenched solidly in the top 10 (No. 7 before Madrid), Berdych is considerably less nimble than Federer and also not nearly as versatile. But he can bludgeon with the best of them, which is what he did en route to an impressive 6-3 first set.

But Federer worked his way back into it with his high skill and deep tool box, and he won the next two tight sets, 7-5, 7-5. But skill is not his only asset. He also ended up with 13 aces to the power-serving Berdych's 10.

Perhaps Federer was inspired by what he saw of Serena's 6-1, 6-3 demolition of No. 1 Victoria Azarenka earlier in the day. In that one, Williams punched out 14 aces -- to none by her opponent. Thus did Serena once again make a mockery of the pecking order in the WTA -- a new order that as little as a week ago had a whiff of what passes for permanence in tennis.

Azarenka and No. 2 Maria Sharapova have dominated the WTA this year, compiling a combined record of 51-6 (only two of those losses contributed by Azarenka). Serena (a not too shabby 17-2 going in) obliterated them by identical scores, breathing new life into the theory that her ardent fans have always embraced as gospel truth: When Serena decides to get her game on, nothing -- not lack of match play, not surface, not ranking, not injury, not age -- is apt to stop her. Considering all the circumstances, this was a legacy-type win.

To understand just how disjointed the rankings and reality can be under the unavoidable demands of fairness and transparency, Serena's reward for winning this event will be a new Nike T-shirt that says: "I smoked Maria and Vika in Madrid and all I got was this lousy No. 6 ranking."

Federer, meanwhile, won his 20th Masters title, which ties him with Nadal. But more important, he vaulted past his longtime rival into the No. 2 position in the rankings.

Federer and Williams got an assist from the new clay in Madrid, but there was nothing out of the blue about their performances. What these two do is win. It's a simple as that.