For a French Open tune-up event, the Mutua Madrid Open garnered all sorts of attention last week. And mostly it was on account of the blue clay. Players hated it and weren't shy about complaining. Others didn't mind it and, smartly, kept this to themselves. It was allegedly telegenic. Except when it wasn't. It was allegedly dangerous. Except that was a tough argument to make, given the perilous conditions of the recent Monte Carlo tournament (that went largely unremarked upon). And the reality is that the worst clay court is easier on the body than the best hard court.
Rafael Nadal complained -- as he does with distressing frequency these days -- then lost to countryman Fernando Verdasco and then went fishing (in the deep blue sea.) Novak Djokovic complained, lost to a countryman as well, and then -- giving new zest to the phrase "surface tension" -- vowed not to return to the event until the blue clay turns red.
Because tennis is often incapable as generating storylines that don't have a ring of classical myth ... as the two top guys griped, the No. 3 guy, a fellow named Roger Federer, simply did his job and won the event, achieving the No. 2 ranking in the process.
In a matter of weeks, Azarenka has gone from "the Djokovic of 2012" to another WTA No.1 now forced to prove she's no paper tigress or one-Slam wondress. As for Serena, it's same song different verse. When she's healthy, able and willing, she's the best. Regardless of what's underfoot. Some of you love her. Some of you hate her. But how can anyone not marvel at the way in which she (and, for that matter, Federer) has, yet again, turned around some discouraging results and put herself in position to win another Slam?
Today? Djokovic suddenly looks beatable, having lost twice, including a smackdown from Nadal. Nadal began his ritual march through clay season, but then lost in Madrid, all the while appearing to be something other than mentally unflappable and singularly focused. Federer claimed still another Masters Series title. Meanwhile, Azarenka backslid on clay (and not because it's slippery), Sharapova won spectacularly one week and lost spectacularly the next. And nine years after her only triumph in Paris, Serena looks the French Open favorite. The glory of Rome and the fall of Pompeii -- all in a month and a half!
Here comes a parade of asterisks: Djokovic was beset by personal tragedy when he lost to Nadal. Federer's title came on a faux surface -- and he didn't have to beat of his rivals to win. Nadal was distracted in Madrid and, though he didn't tank, he wasn't devastated to exit an event he doesn't hold in the highest regard. Serena still hasn't won a major in two years; Sharapova in five. Plus, we should be wary of according too much importance to any results played on blue clay.
Any and all could be solid assertions; any and all could be hollow alibis. And ultimately, who cares? The truth will come out in a few weeks in Paris. We'll see what happens when the (red) dust settles. Meanwhile, these recent twists and EKG-like ups and downs, give us a vivid illustration of what so many enjoy about the sport.