Commentary

Blue clay, tennis head games

Proximity to French Open unleashes full array of competition

Updated: May 10, 2012, 4:34 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Madrid Blue ClayMike Hewitt/Getty ImagesWhat is pleasing to the eye isn't necessarily pleasing to the players.

The best way to get bounced from a tournament is to face the player across the net and lose because on that day the opponent was the superior player. The worst way is to lose before the match even begins by obsessing about the conditions, losing focus and then the match.

In March, Roger Federer was the best player at Indian Wells, but Rafael Nadal allowed the cold and wind and wet to take him away mentally from Federer, who in turn destroyed him, blowing him off of the court in two easy sets.

During the week in Madrid, the new blue clay surface has been discussed as if players were now being asked to play tennis underwater. Nadal, who crushed Nikolay Davydenko on the blue stuff in the second round in 80 minutes never facing a break point, nevertheless aired his disgust for the surface -- a disgust that reached supernova after a breathtaking collapse in the third round against Fernando Verdasco. In the third set Nadal served for the match 5-2, up a double break over a man he had beaten in all 13 career meetings, and then got sent packing by losing the next five games.

As has become his custom, Nadal was the most vocal not only about the change to the radical blue surface, but also regarding the politics behind the decision: the money to be made by the change and, for him most importantly, the lack of input given to the players. He is an activist, inclined to fight any industry impulse that drifts tennis closer to the NFL, where players are treated as disposable commodities that perform at the behest of a public interested in being entertained and leaders interested in making money.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal started and ended the week with a low opinion of the surface change.

Ion Tiriac, the great tennis mind who runs the tournament, apparently did not consult with players perhaps because the players are still thought of as well-compensated chattel, or Tiriac knew the answer without asking, or perhaps both. Finely tuned athletes abhor change of any sort. Regardless, unilateral decisions are almost always a mistake, and this was no exception.

Nadal has long disliked the altitude of Madrid -- an odd complaint considering Madrid is only 2,100 feet above sea level -- and now the surface is in his crosshairs. Federer is not a fan of the blue clay and neither is David Ferrer nor Novak Djokovic, who said playing on the surface wasn't "real tennis" and even stopped play earlier in the week after he felt the watering of the court made the clay excessively slippery. Of course, they're still playing. Federer, who had a gritty win over Milos Raonic and a breeze against Richard Gasquet, seems to benefit from the fast clay. Ferrer also fought the clay and won, escaping three match points to beat Nicolas Almagro.

Nadal rightfully praised Verdasco's resolve for being better on this day, blamed himself for his inability to adjust and adapt -- his forehand was wild and Verdasco rocked Nadal with big forehands on a very fast surface -- but it was clear that Nadal was not fighting Verdasco alone but also the clay. It is one thing to be unnerved by the blue clay, quite another to acknowledge the reason, which is that the court plays faster than Nadal prefers. Smoldering in defeat, he sent a message to the great Tiriac, threatening to skip Madrid next year if changes are not made.

What really matters, naturally, is how players have competed leading up to the French Open, and the blue clay is only one of the head games taking place in Madrid. Nadal was well on his way to clearing his mind -- having beaten Djokovic and having won consecutive tournaments in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Now he must dissect exactly just what happened in the final 30 minutes against Verdasco, when he was pushed wide, was troubled by the pace of Verdasco's forehand and the lack of calibration on his own.

Serving for the match for the second time, at 5-4, Nadal was broken at love. Fighting to stay in the match at 5-6, 0-15, Verdasco hit a running, screaming, down-line forehand winner. Two aces put Nadal back at deuce, but a forehand mishit from the baseline gave Verdasco his second match point, one he wouldn't squander. The clay had been in Nadal's head from the start, and once Verdasco shook Nadal's confidence, it never returned.

That stands in stark contrast to the day's earlier match. Serena Williams avenged losing to Caroline Wozniacki in Miami with a convincing 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. Serena has been called a bully, using intimidation as part of her aura. She was recently criticized by longtime coach Ricardo Sanchez, who questioned her commitment to the game and suggested Williams could be beaten the way any bully can: by standing up to her and causing her to wilt through rallies longer than four or five shots. Sanchez had his say, but after losing the first set badly, the fighter in Williams focused in narrowly on Wozniacki, and grew tougher and hungrier and more resolute. The blue clay didn't matter. Nothing did. The two could've been playing in a cow pasture, and Williams would not have let Wozniacki beat her without a tremendous fight. Maria Sharapova awaits Williams in the next round.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic joined the chorus of players complaining, but has fought through the conditions.

While Nadal was stunned historically, and the theatre of Djokovic-Nadal IX will have to wait, the real volatility in the ranks rests with players like John Isner and Petra Kvitova.

Isner, the world No. 10, expected to make a hard push -- perhaps more because he's an American than because he has the goods to compete with the Big Three -- into the world of elite, top-shelf tennis played exactly a typical, tiebreak-reliant Isner match but lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) to Marin Cilic, who was then easily blistered by Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets.

Isner should've never lost to Cilic, and the question, despite impressive wins over Federer at the Davis Cup and Djokovic at Indian Wells, is whether he will be able to advance without having to work so hard in the early rounds against veteran but not spectacular competition, especially in five-set majors. The hopeful forecast for Isner -- a big-serving, emerging ball-striking threat -- may actually apply more to the Canadian Raonic, who let an attainable victory against let Federer slip right through his fingers.

The head games continue. Kvitova may have joined the ranks of Li Na, Samantha Stosur and Francesca Schiavone as grand slam winners without a consistent second act.

She exited the blue clay after being easily dispatched by fellow Czech Lucie Hradecka, four and three, double faulting eight times and nailing only 56 percent of first serves and winning but 25 percent of her seconds. Kvitova is a big-power, big-serve player who hasn't quite found her footing in the high-rent district. Kvitova hasn't been to a final all year (except the Hopman Cup exhibition before the Australian Open) and despite her weapons has been overshadowed in the toughness and consistency department (and ultimately the rankings) by the less spectacular but better Agnieszka Radwanska, herself living a personal form of hell by being able to beat everyone except world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.

Azarenka seeks a mandate of her own, trying to be the first real No. 1 -- dominant in ranking, major titles and imagination -- since Williams, and she isn't making any friends doing so. Radwanska, who crushed Sara Errani, a bagel and one, and outlasted Roberta Vinci to make the quarters, exists in an interesting mental space, soaring to a career-best No. 3 while easily being outclassed only by Azarenka this year (0-5 head to head). It would be easy to conclude that Radwanska, like Wozniacki, simply does not possess the kind of high-firepower game required to beat players like Azarenka, but Radwanska took out the hard-hitting Sharapova earlier this year in Miami. The issue with Radwanska, when Azarenka is bobbing and weaving on the other side of the net, is in the mirror.

By the end of the week, the blue clay will turn back to red, and the game will be as it has always been, the winners being whoever best fights off the demons that live in their heads.

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