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Nadal, Williams make statements heading toward French Open

Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal can still take the No. 4 ranking from David Ferrer before Roland Garros.

1. Flowers bloom. A chill leaves the air. Hollywood bombards with disappointing releases. And here's another reliable sign of spring: Rafael Nadal goes into beast mode.

Operating on clay -- his natural habitat -- Nadal is almost playing a different sport from the rest of the field. It's been the case for almost a decade, and it was the case last week in Madrid, as Nadal won still another event (his 55th) and still another Masters Series title (23rd, more than a certain Swiss champion).

We can debate whether this should inflate or deflate the rest of the field, but Nadal wasn't at his best last week. He -- gasp -- dropped a set and came within two points of losing to David Ferrer. He reluctantly acknowledged some knee pain. His serve let him down on occasion. Still, he walked away with the trophy and, his seeding notwithstanding, is the likely favorite in Paris.

Video: Ferrer blows shot at 2 match points against Nadal

Here's Nadal ledger since returning in February: five titles (two Masters), two finals, a match record of 31-2 and more than $3 million in prize money. A reader who identifies himself only as "J" made this point, too: Man, does he eat up the one-handed backhand. In addition to his favorable record against Roger Federer, Nadal is 9-0 against Stan Wawrinka (whom he beat he 6-2, 6-4 in Sunday's final), 10-0 against both Richard Gasquet and Nicolas Almagro and 5-0 against Tommy Haas.

Federer: Nadal deserves French Open seed bump

2. Williams masters Sharapova, again. Several years ago, Serena Williams expressed some dismay that Maria Sharapova made so much coin in endorsements. Said a member of the Williams camps, "You made her, Serena. You have no one to blame but yourself!" It was good-natured, but the point was this: Sharapova launched her one-woman multinational when she beat Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final. Had Williams played a better match that day, well, the market cap for Sharapova, Inc. might be different.

Whether it's the additional motivation, a mental edge or simply a game that matches up superbly, Williams' dominance over Sharapova since 2004 borders on cruel and unusual punishment. On Sunday, playing in her first red clay final since winning the 2002 French Open, she mauled Sharapova 6-1, 6-4 in Madrid. It marked her 12th straight win over Sharapova, a streak dating to 2004. It also marked Williams' 50th career title.

Sharapova dominated in best chance to end losing streak to Williams

After this win, Williams becomes the early favorite to win the French Open. Which sounds strange, given that she blew out of Roland Garros in the first round last year. (Sharapova, of course, is the defending champion.) But then again, that's how she rolls.

"It is the ultimate challenge," Williams said of winning the French Open -- something she has done only once before. "Whether I reach it, I don't know. I'm not going to put that pressure on me."

Serena talks career, pop culture and more

3. Williams didn't just overcome a battery of opponents last week. She also overcame one of the stranger acts of -- er, um, cough, cough, harrumph, harrumph -- gamesmanship we've seen in a while. Anabel Medina Garrigues (which, oddly enough, translates to "Clay Buchholz" from the original Catalan) pulled this during the quarterfinals.

All while Play that Funky Music, White Boy wafts through the stadium.

In a weird way, you have to be impressed by the sheer brazenness of tampering with new balls not only in plain sight but also with a TV camera directly behind her. On the other hand, is there really no sanction for this? Any yutz with a phone near his Barcalounger calls in an arcane rules violation of a golfer, and it changes the entire complexion of a major. In tennis, you have irrefutable proof of a clear infraction and nothing comes of it, save a few thousand YouTube views.

Stephens declares peace with Williams via Twitter

Shots, Miscellany

? Bob and Mike Bryan won the Madrid doubles. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Lucie Safarova took the women's.

? Jimmy Connors stopped by the Cat Ranch the other day. Our podcast is here.

? Tragic week for the University of Oregon tennis program.

? Milos Raonic has parted ways with coach Galo Blanco.

? Dear Madrid organizers: The trophy -- which simply begs for snark -- undercuts your event's credibility. We'll leave it at that.

Daily Bagel: Player/ump arguments in Madrid

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