Aces and Faults: Maria Sharapova remains undefeated on clay this season
Maria Sharapova: The "Claypova" moniker is no longer a punchline; she's the real deal. Sharapova continued her dominance on clay, beating Simona Halep 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 to win her first Madrid Open title and second title this year. Since the beginning of 2012, Sharapova's record on clay is 46-3, with those three losses coming to No. 1 Serena Williams.
Sharapova is now 11-0 on clay this season and the wins have been quality ones, with six top 10 wins over the last two weeks, including Halep, Li Na, Agnieszka Radwanska and Ana Ivanovic. With Serena's injury-interrupted season, it's hard not to tag Sharapova as the French Open favorite. The win moves her up to No. 7 and assures her a top-eight seed at the French Open, which will make her campaign at Roland Garros much easier.
Highlights from the well-played final below:
Rafael Nadal: You never want to win a title because your opponent retires, but Nadal will take it after a week of domination in Madrid. Nadal didn't drop a set leading into the final, but he found himself up against the ropes against Kei Nishikori, dropping the first set 6-2 and getting bullied around the court by Nishikori's intelligent point construction.
If Nishikori didn't run out of gas -- which really, is the story of his career -- Nadal could have been going into Rome without a European clay title under his belt. But Nadal appeared to recover his mojo on clay last week, and his title surely gives him some of the confidence he so desperately needed after two tough losses on clay.
Highlights from the final below:
Kei Nishikori: It was another history-making weekend for Nishikori, as he made his first ATP Masters 1000 final and became the first Japanese man to break into the ATP's top 10. Even more impressive, he once again showed he has the game to take down the game's elite players, beating David Ferrer and Milos Raonic and building a set and coming two games from stunning Nadal in the final.
Simona Halep: If you look back at the young Romanian's results over the last 12 months, Halep just keeps one-upping herself. She made her first Grand Slam quarterfinal this year at the Australian Open, won her first Premier-level tournament at the Qatar Open and last week she made her biggest final yet at a Premier Mandatory event. She didn't appear intimidated by the occasion, winning the first set and forcing Sharapova to up her game and grind out the win. A deep run at the French Open is not inconceivable.
Dominic Thiem: His injury withdrawal took some air out of his stunning win over No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka in the second round, but it's hard to not think that we saw the future of men's tennis while watching him blast Wawrinka off the court. Hope he gets healthy for the French Open.
Roberto Bautista Agut: It's difficult to make a name for yourself as a Spaniard on clay playing in the shadow of Nadal and Ferrer, but Bautista Agut has quietly proven that he's a force to be reckoned with this year. He already beat Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych on hard courts, but he made his first ATP Masters 1000 semifinal on clay in Madrid. Now up to No. 28 in the rankings, no one will want to see him in their part of the draw in Paris.
Santiago Giraldo: Here's a prime example of the tennis life: Giraldo qualified for Madrid and knocked out Jo- Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray in back-to-back straight set wins to make the Madrid quarterfinals on Friday, only to find himself back in the qualifying round on Saturday for the Italian Open. Giraldo has been on a tear on clay, making the final in Barcelona and semifinals in Houston, and then getting his first top 10 wins in Madrid. Including Davis Cup and qualifying matches, the Colombian is 16-3 since the start of April.
Bob and Mike Bryan: The twins made their seventh-straight final this season before their 24-match win streak finally came to an end in the Madrid final, where they lost to Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic. That's an incredible run when you consider the small margin for error in doubles.
Fabio Fognini: Usually I find Fognini's antics entertaining, but he crossed the line and should have been fined by the ATP for his treatment of chair umpire Mohammed Lahyani at the Madrid Open.
Svetlana Kuznetsova: The Russian is playing well on clay, but she squandered three-consecutive match points in a third set tiebreaker to lose to Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6) in the second round.
Jerzy Janowicz: Jerzy can't win a mach. His first round defeat to Ernests Gulbis made it eight-straight losses for the Pole. His first-round loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber at the Italian Open on Sunday made it nine.
9: Nishikori's new career-high ranking.
3: Sharapova's new spot in the Road to Singapore rankings. Not bad for a player who came into the clay season without a title.
21: Points Halep trails No. 4 Victoria Azarenka in the rankings going into Rome. But we're now entering the part of the year when Halep will defend the bulk of her points from last year.
0: American men left in Rome. Sam Querrey and Jack Sock both lost to Pere Riba in qualifying and John Isner lost to Jurgen Melzer in the first round on Sunday.
11: Consecutive losses for Kevin Anderson to Tomas Berdych. The two have played seven times in the last 17 months and Anderson keeps landing in Berdych's section. After he lost again in the second round of Madrid, Anderson's wife Kelsey sent out a great tweet:
Ok, I am taking things into my own hands... I am getting a restraining order @tomasberdych
— Kelsey Anderson (@KelseyOAnderson) May 7, 2014
Photo of the week
In case you missed it ...
• Former No. 1 Dinara Safina officially retired from tennis a the Madrid Open, where she played her final match three years ago. Hers was a successful carer any way you slice it and I always thought she handled the scrutiny about her inability to win a Slam with class and character. Best of luck to her.
• Luck of the first-round draw: Belinda Bencic qualified and lost to Serena Williams, Eugenie Bouchard lost to Agnieszka Radwanska and Madison Keys lost to Ana Ivanovic.
• Not a bad tournament for Li Na, who was playing her first clay tournament of the season. She had her chances against Sharapova in a 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 loss in the quarterfinals. The best news is that she was able to play the tournament pain free after skipping Stuttgart to rest her knee.
• Sloane Stephens took Li to three sets before losing 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. Noted.
• Caroline Garcia is officially a legitimate dark horse pick -- not to win but to make a notable run -- for the French Open. She qualified easily and beat clay-specialist Sara Errani 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 before narrowly losing to Radwanska 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 in her first Premier Mandatory quarterfinal. That loss snapped an 11-match win streak.
• Will Kei Nishikori find a way to hold up for a full Masters tournament, let alone a Grand Slam, let alone a full season?
• I could not get over how well Sharapova is defending her backhand out of the corner against Halep in the final. The self-proclaimed "cow on ice" when playing on clay can now slide open her stance into her backhand corner and flick it back in -- dare I say -- Djokovician manner.
• Sharapova hit zero aces in the final, getting out-aced 4-0. Upside: Sharapova won a clay title without playing her best tennis. Downside: Wait...you got out-aced by Simona Halep on clay?
• Nadal needs a bigger win than just beating Berdych to completely right his ship. But it was a start.
• I'm not going to say Jelena Jankovic has had a bad clay season when she's made the Stuttgart semifinals and Bogota final, and has an 8-3 record on the red stuff. But... she's kind of had a bad clay season.
• I'm ignoring Andy Murray until the grass-court season. And you should too.• Aren't Leo and Lenny both short for Leonard?