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Monday May 14th, 2012

Roger Federer, Serena Williams Roger Federer and Serena Williams, born seven weeks apart in 1981, are showing no signs of slowing down. (Susana Vera/Reuters; Juan Carlos Hidalgo/EPA)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Roger Federer recaptured the No. 2 ranking from Rafael Nadal with his 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 win over Tomas Berdych, and Serena Williams recaptured the right to wave her index finger in the air with a decisive 6-1, 6-3 victory over No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in Madrid. Here are five thoughts on the Madrid Open finals, where two resilient champions showed just why they're the greatest male and female players of their generation.

1. No whining, just winning

While Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic hijacked the headlines all week with their strident critiques of the playing surface, even going so far as to threaten a boycott next year if the slippery surface wasn't fixed, Federer and Williams checked their complaints at the door once it was time to actually play. That's not to say they didn't have concerns about the blue clay and how it was playing -- Federer admitted he didn't feel comfortable on the court and Serena called it "ridiculous" a few weeks ago -- but neither player let the negativity surrounding the tournament get into their heads.

In retrospect, we shouldn't be shocked. Nadal is a man of extreme routine. He wants his bottles a certain way, his pre-match routine to be just so, and you have to wonder whether those routines help simplify the game for him so that his laser focus never wanes. Djokovic may not be defined by routine, but he does have a history of letting the small things needle him to distraction.

But Federer has never been that guy. As much as his elegant play and persona may indicate otherwise, Federer is a "put on your hard hat and go to work" kind of guy on the court. His trademark hair flick acts like a shrug, and he spent the week shrugging off everything from the shoddy surface that forced him to crash the net against Milos Raonic in his second-round win to Berdych's incredible form through the first set of their final.

To be fair to Nadal and Djokovic, Federer was always going to be the least likely of the Big Three to complain. The blue clay actually suited his offensive-minded game and he played some jaw-dropping, first-strike tennis throughout the week. But what was impressive from Federer all week, again, particularly in his matches against Raonic and Berdych, was his commitment to just go with the flow even when the matches got tight.

2. Serena is as motivated as ever

Last week, Ricardo Sanchez, former coach to Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki, had some puzzling comments questioning Serena's motivation. "The thing about Venus and Serena is they do not want to play [tennis]," he told El Pais. "They compete now just to make the London Games. They are more into celebrity and fashion."

I'm not sure what Sanchez has been reading lately or if he's paid attention to Serena, who has been as committed as ever in 2012. Williams played Brisbane and the Australian Open, and after taking time to heal her ankle injury sustained in Brisbane, she played two Fed Cup ties, Miami, Charleston and Madrid. In fact, she wanted to play Monterrey and Stuttgart as well, but injury kept her out of the former and Fed Cup duties out of the latter.

Williams' hunger to prove herself and get back to the top is evident. Serena always makes a good No. 1, but her intensity and focus go to another level when she is chasing someone. In beating No. 2 Maria Sharapova and then No. 1 Azarenka by the same 6-1, 6-3 score, Williams reminded us of what she's capable of, even on her worst surface.

3. Azarenka has something to prove

Yo, Serena, you might get served with a subpoena given the beatdown you administered in the final. This was the matchup we've been waiting to see ever since Azarenka clinched the No. 1 ranking in Australia because, whether fair or not, Serena remains the litmus test on the WTA Tour. Azarenka dodged their first scheduled meeting at Fed Cup in Worcester, Mass., citing a back injury, and while she's played well on the European clay, making the finals of both Stuttgart and Madrid, she has yet to notch a big win that makes you sit up and take notice (sorry, merciless shellackings of Agnieszka Radwanska no longer count).

To be fair, clay is Azarenka's worst surface. Only one of her 12 titles came on the dirt (Marbella 2011), and she's never made it past the quarterfinals of the French Open. Then again, the two women she lost to in Stuttgart (Sharapova) and Madrid aren't supposed to be clay-court queens either.

4. Oldies but goodies

Will Smith was in Madrid promoting his new Men in Black movie, and once I got over the weirdness of seeing the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air standing amidst the blue clay handing Federer a suit that he wore in the movie (no, really, that happened), I had to admit: Will Smith looks good! The guy doesn't look like he's aged a day since Independence Day.

Which got me thinking: The last time there was a Men in Black movie out in the theaters was 2002. That year, Serena Williams was on her way to completing "The Serena Slam" -- winning the French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and the Australian Open in successive fashion -- and Federer was building toward his first Grand Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2003. Ten years later, Williams and Federer are still going strong and at 30 years old, they're showing the kids how it's done.

5. Rome will be the proving ground

While Williams' and Federer's title runs were laudable, how much can we really read into these Madrid results? A blue clay tournament, played at altitude, where the surface proved slippery and fast, favoring big hitters? I'd say the results are more meaningful for the women than the men. There were fewer shockers on the WTA side, and in the end you still had three of the four best players on the year into the semifinals (Azarenka, Radwanska and Williams). The win will surely give Williams a boost of confidence (not that she needs it) and it sends a message to the rest of the tour that she's the Queen Bee (not that they needed it). But for the ATP, each and every result could effectively be erased in Rome. If Nadal or Djokovic wins Rome, no one will think twice about what happened in Madrid. The surface was just too much of an X-factor, and let's not forget that Andy Murray was busy healing his back and playing with Legos during the tournament. After incomplete fields in Monte Carlo and Madrid, everyone will be looking to the results in Rome to handicap the Roland Garros field. You were a fun distraction, Madrid, but now it's business time.

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