One of the most endearing qualities of a team-sports schedule is the sense of anticipation it creates, a knowledge that at some exact time on the calendar, rivalries will commence and scores will be settled. Tennis cannot extend its fans that luxury. We've been extremely fortunate to see countless important matches involving the men's Big Three (apologies to Andy Murray), but some marquee-level rivalries have all but vanished on the women's side.
That's why a certain quarter of the women's draw has attracted considerable attention in Madrid. The third round brings a confrontation between Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki, and if Serena were to handle that assignment, she could meet Maria Sharapova in the fourth.
To say the least, we've seen plenty of Victoria Azarenka's heated rivalry with Agnieszka Radwanska. We can hardly avoid it. Dating back to last year's Indian Wells, they've met seven times, Azarenka winning six of those matches. Similarly, Azarenka and Sharapova have come to expect a confrontation, playing each other five times since (and including) the 2011 Miami event.
When Wozniacki defeated Williams in a Miami quarterfinal two months ago, it was only the second time they'd met in three years. Wozniacki's reputation is fading fast in the wake of a desultory season, but a victory over Serena -- who appears to be fit, healthy and ready to dominate -- would do wonders for her confidence.
From this viewpoint, though, the real blockbuster would be Serena-Sharapova. As much as fans have been enthralled by the depth of talent and utter unpredictability at the elite level, there's nothing quite like this matchup. Over time, they have proven themselves to be the two biggest fighters on Tour, fierce competitors you wouldn't rule out if they were down 1-5 in a deciding set.
Moreover, they're the two biggest celebrities on tour. A number of women would love to be stars, having built a widespread fan base on their looks alone, but Serena truly lives the part. She's a modern-day Suzanne Lenglen, knowing everything comes to a stop when she enters a room, and her diva-like behavior becomes explainable when set against her formidable track record.
Sharapova has been a star since she was 17 -- since the day she beat Serena in the 2004 Wimbledon final. She took that tournament by storm, a striking teenager with an elegance and sophistication about her. She had a model's poise, spoke perfect English, and has since blossomed into the most marketable female athlete in sports. She doesn't have to think about being a star, she just is. Here is a woman who was recently photographed in a shortish blonde wig, creating a fiercely alluring look, and completely fooled the public until revealing it was just a joke, that "it doesn't work with my lifestyle."
Given that both Sharapova and Serena have dealt with serious injuries, it's perfectly understandable that their head-to-head matchups would dwindle. Still, it seems incredible that they've squared off only twice in the last four years, or since the 2008 Charleston event on clay. Serena won a 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinal in two close sets, then routed her at last year's Stanford tournament, 6-1, 6-3.
So bring it on, a fourth-round match that speaks to the depth of Madrid's field. Star power most definitely needs a stage.
Down the line
? Blue clay: What's my reaction, since I was among the Mister Crankypants brigade? Well, Boris Becker was right: Players and television viewers will get used to it. We really don't have a choice. It's not like they painted the courts pink, or in all the wondrous colors of the rainbow. It's just not clay-court tennis in Europe -- not for my money. I knew that on Monday, when, at the conclusion of Tennis Channel's comprehensive Madrid coverage, the programming switched to the Juan Martin del Potro-Richard Gasquet final from Estoril over the weekend. Ah, yes: the pure red clay. The real thing.
Let Ion Tiriac have his bizarre dream, I say. Madrid isn't Monte Carlo, a spectacular outdoor setting framed by the azure Mediterranean. With its partially enclosed roof, it has the feel and sound of an indoor event. It will never be Roland Garros, nor should it pretend to be. I wouldn't at all mind hearing the top players lodge more complaints, but let's hope for a seamless tournament in which the slippery blue clay doesn't cause any unnecessary injuries. That would be most unfortunate.
Now checking in on some U.S.-related storylines...
? Donald Young: Hopeless. Without a single redeeming feature. He had a monstrous first-round assignment in Madrid, trying to take down the tireless Viktor Troicki, but as the third set progressed, the Serb should have taken the court with a bib and silverware. Young was just waiting to be devoured. After fighting hard to win the second set, his game and temperament quickly dissolved in a lamentable torrent of pathetic body language and temper displays (slamming his racket to the ground, hammering a ball against the back wall). He started hitting forehands about six feet long, double-faulting at the very worst times. Total unforced errors for the match: 53. Young is now 2-10 for the season, stubbornly clinging to his parents' coaching and turning his back on the USTA. I'm not sure how he gets back on the map.
? Melanie's comeback: Good for Melanie, and her family, that she has managed to earn a wild card in the French Open. But it's not exciting. It only reaches that point if she reaches the third round at Roland Garros. She has to beat a few top players in the proper setting before any "comeback" talk can be taken seriously. It's not going to happen, either. It just won't.
? Say it ain't so: There was understandable joy in American circles when Varvara Lepchenko, the 25-year-old of Russian-Ukranian descent who became a U.S. citizen five years ago, won her first-round match. Nothing but sadness here, It came at the expense of Francesca Schiavone, who seems trapped in a gradual and depressing fade from relevance. Whatever the color, Schiavone shouldn't lose this match on a European clay court. I'm hoping she gives us one last blast of brilliance in Paris.
? Revenge: Ryan Harrison had been waiting for another crack at Sergiy Stakhovsky. In his U.S. Open debut two years ago, Harrison had three match points on Stakovsky at 6-3 in the fifth-set tiebreaker. Down 2-1 in sets, Harrison had fought his way back before a raucous crowd on the grandstand, only to let it slip away. In a match that reflected his growing maturity, Harrison won a tough first-rounder 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5) against the Ukranian in Madrid. That had to feel good.