The clay-court calendar speeds backward now, back to a time we'd love to have back. Could that be possible? Who would dare dismiss such fantasy? If you doubt that Rafael Nadal has fully resurrected his magic on the good red dirt, perhaps you missed his recent masterpieces in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
Start to finish, those tournaments gave us the vintage Nadal: free of pain, with all the confidence and élan of a bullfighter in command. Critics and opponents were left in that familiar state of awe, Fernando Verdasco noting the "brutal intensity" of Nadal on clay, and that "he is always 200 percent." Janko Tipsarevic went as far as to claim that Nadal is "better than ever on clay," and that "he is the worst opponent you can imagine on this surface."
Was even the slightest element missing? In truth, yes. Novak Djokovic didn't play Barcelona, and he was nursing a broken heart in Monte Carlo after his grandfather's death. I wonder, though, if Djokovic senses an imminent threat to his dominance of the tour. To think that Roger Federer also looms, plotting a shocking takeover of the French Open as he takes a much-needed break, creates dreamlike storylines for the month of May.
Tennis aficionados have spent much of this year cringing at the prospect of watching Nadal, so gloomy were his proclamations in the wake of serious knee problems and an admitted mental block against Djokovic. If you've followed this man's remarkable career, it's a little bit daunting to hear him say he was "close to tennis death" and that he "stared the end of my career in the face" during the worst of his sore-kneed episodes. Only a month ago, he had to withdraw from a Miami semifinal against Andy Murray because, physically, "I cannot go on court and lie to everybody."
Deep down, Nadal had to figure that only rest, and the onset of the clay-court season, could assuage his tormented soul. Behold the transformation: He now has a 77-match winning streak on clay in the month of April. He moves about the court with alacrity, not just during points but between them, with a quick and purposeful stride. Nobody can know for certain what's going on inside that left knee (both knees, actually), but the truth is exposed on court, in the most trying moments, when nothing less than all-out commitment will suffice.
Facing the relentless David Ferrer in the Barcelona final, trailing 5-4 in the second set, Nadal was about eight feet behind the right-corner baseline when he stabbed a backhand lob in his desperation to stay in the point. Ferrer lined up an overhead from inside the service line, but Nadal didn't just block this onrushing bullet with a shoulder-high forehand; he managed to push it solidly down the line, forcing Ferrer into a retreating chip forehand. Nadal put away the volley and went on to clinch a crucial break of serve.
I was thinking of Milos Raonic, who made an inspired run to the semifinals, during Nadal's performance in the next game. Raonic-Nadal was the idyllic final -- the big-serving kid against the long-heralded virtuoso -- and Raonic staged a fearless performance before losing his semifinal to Ferrer. But Raonic couldn't dream of hitting the backhand Nadal uncorked at 5-5 in the final.
For one thing, Raonic doesn't trust his backhand. Given a bit more time to set up his groundstrokes on clay, Raonic tends to run around his forehand -- even if he's pushed back to the far left corner -- and go for broke. That strategy cost him against Ferrer, and the kid undoubtedly realizes he'll need some improvement on his weaker side.
Switch back to Nadal, about to hold serve for a 6-5 lead. At 30-0, Ferrer had to be pleased with a strong, cross-court forehand approach that sent Nadal scrambling behind the baseline. Somehow, while sliding his back foot into a solidly planted position, Nadal unleashed one of those ridiculous cross-court backhand winners, summoning a brand of strength bordering on the surreal.
As Nadal closed out his 7-6 (1), 7-5 win, there could be no doubt that his clay-court mastery was completely intact. Grave danger lurks throughout the year, as the tour switches to grass and then the unforgiving hardcourts, and it's entirely possible that Nadal will be living his 2011 nightmare all over again. We can only celebrate what we see in front of us: a great champion in all his glory, and the calendar spinning madly in reverse.
Here's a conversation I hope never takes place at home:
"Try these new scrambled eggs, honey. Fresh off the stove."
"But they're blue."
"But they're delicious."
To the consternation of most everyone involved, Ion Tiriac is serving up just such a catastrophe at the Madrid Open, which opens on Sunday. He has taken one of the most enthralling sights in tennis -- red clay courts in the heart of Europe -- and drowned it in a sickening onslaught of blue.
Esteemed tennis journalist Tom Tebbutt has called it "a shameless publicity gimmick" by Tiriac, the onetime tour renegade who runs the Madrid event, and that's putting it mildly. It's one thing to shift the hardcourts of the Australian and U.S. Opens from green to blue, for the benefit of television; as ghastly as it sounded at first, we've all come to accept it.
Tiriac's brainstorm amounts to replacing the Wimbledon grass with Astroturf, or staging the World Cup soccer on a carpet. Madrid will be played on clay, but who even
Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have all come out against the decision, Federer saying, "I find it sad that you have to play on a surface the players don't accept. And it's sad that Rafa, at a tournament in his own country, has had to fight against a surface he does not want to play on."
Maybe television viewers will be able to see the ball a bit better, but every shred of tradition and aesthetic pleasure will be lost, and if I weren't responsible for watching Madrid, journalistically, I wouldn't watch it at all. "The history of clay court was on red," Nadal said. "It wasn't on blue. Only one person wins -- the owner of the tournament."
Through the years, we've learned that blue works well with just about anything, and that it tends to blend splendidly with the unconventional.
Blue Man: By the time these guys finish their theatrical performance, you're looking for a can of blue paint.
Blue Moon: Tremendous doo-wopping by the Marcels, in 1961, in the face of outrage from those favoring the Rodgers and Hart original.
Blue Christmas: Many would have traded their cheery Yuletide for Elvis' melancholy.
Blue Rondo a la Turk: No idea what it means, but extremely cool jazz styling from Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond.
Blue hair: Garish and appalling, but actually fits a certain personality.
Blue clay? Never in a million years.