Five for Friday: Rafael Nadal threatens boycott; Roger Federer eyes No. 2
The talk of the town is the Madrid Open's controversial blue clay. In clearing out my notebook, I'll look at what Rafael Nadal's shocking loss to Fernando Verdasco means for a potential ranking shakeup heading into the French Open; the blue clay; and Milos Raonic's "statement loss."
1. Rafa's revolt: You have to feel for Verdasco. Here he is pulling off a nearly impossible feat -- Verdasco came back from a double-break down, 2-5, in the third set to win five straight games and drop Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 -- and getting the biggest win of his career in his hometown after a long slump, and the guy isn't even the C-story. Not that Verdasco should care. Let Rafa have the headlines, he'll take the scoreboard.
First, let's look at the unexpected result. Verdasco had never beaten Nadal in 14 previous meetings. In fact, it was only the ninth time Nadal has lost on clay since 2005. His losses on the dirt since then have come against Gaston Gaudio, Igor Andreev, Roger Federer (twice), Juan Carlos Ferrero, Robin Soderling, Novak Djokovic (twice) and now Verdasco. Rafa had won 22 straight on the surface, dating to his loss to Djokovic in the Rome final last year.
Now, Nadal is threatening to skip Madrid next year if the color and the court surface aren't fixed. This isn't an empty threat. Madrid may be a mandatory Masters tournament, but a player can skip one without penalty if he meets certain criteria. Nadal has played more than 600 matches in his career, so he doesn't lose bonus-pool money if he skips one Masters event.
Are Ion Tiriac and the Madrid organizers really willing to risk losing Nadal -- one of the few players who actually fills the seats in Madrid -- just so they can keep playing mad scientist?
2. Federer makes his move: With Nadal's loss, Federer has a chance to grab the No. 2 ranking if he wins Madrid, according to the ATP's Greg Sharko. Other than bragging rights, why is this significant? Because then Federer would be the No. 2 seed at the French Open if he can hold on to the spot through Rome. In that scenario, Djokovic and Federer wouldn't be able to meet until the final, and Nadal could play either of them in the semis. Here's another fun fact: Nadal has been in the top two since exactly two years ago Thursday. Wouldn't it be fun if he fell out of the top two on the same week two years later?
3. Feeling blue: I know, I know, you're probably all sick of hearing and talking about the Madrid courts, but I do have a few final thoughts before we leave James Cameron's Avatar world and return to the familiar, rustic red clay.
I'm all for innovation and thinking outside the box, but do it on your own time. Madrid is not only an essential cornerstone of the players' preparation for the French Open, but it's also a mandatory joint event. That means the stakes are high and the players have little choice but to play here. If Strasbourg or Gstaad wanted to engage in some radical experiments with respect to court surfaces or balls, by all means let them. Players who play there effectively sign off on the conditions, and players who don't like those conditions can skip the event.
Heck, I'm even OK if Indian Wells, Miami, Beijing or Shanghai wanted to introduce some wonky surface that the players didn't much care for. The fact is, none of those events are lead-ups to the Slams. But to force the players onto a new surface that turned out to play significantly different in every meaningful way does nobody any good. The players have to put their Roland Garros preparation on pause and it's almost impossible to read into the results, rendering the tournament meaningless.
Tournaments aren't important just because you slap a Masters shield on them and pay the players a hefty check. Tournaments are important when the tennis that's played there matters to players and fans. The more Madrid strays from the norm, the more trivial it all becomes.
4. Pics or it didn't happen: The lack of WTA television coverage in Madrid was truly outrageous, and not in an awesome Jem and the Holograms kind of way. Tennis Channel didn't air any WTA matches until the quarterfinals, and even then they were shown on tape delay hours after the results were in. Online streaming options weren't much better, with no more than two WTA matches streaming on ESPN3 or TennisTV a day.
Here's a sampling of matches no one got to see: Victoria Azarenka vs. Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams vs. Angelique Kerber, Azarenka vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caroline Wozniacki vs. Mona Barthel. These are major matches with significant storylines at a Premier Mandatory tournament where fans were left staring at a scoreboard, using nothing more than their imaginations to fill in the blanks.
The WTA needs to take a long, hard look at its contracts with tournaments. If a tournament wants Premier Mandatory status, then television coverage can't be optional. Madrid invested a lot of money in its blue clay experiment in order to improve visibility issues for viewers at home. Too bad it didn't invest any money in making sure WTA matches were actually, well, visible. Keep your fluorescent balls in the can, Madrid. The next innovation should be equality.
5. (Almost) another game for Milos: Raonic hitting one-handed backhand winners? Federer rushing the net on clay? Is this what the blue clay hath wrought? Federer and Raonic gave us the most entertaining match of the week, a second-round clash that Federer won 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4). Raonic was the better player and the stat sheet bore it out: The Canadian hit 46 winners to 26 unforced errors, ripped 21 aces and won more points. Federer hit 36 winners to 37 unforced errors with seven aces.
So how did the wily veteran come out on top? He did what wily veterans do. He played the big points better. Federer saved seven of eight break points and despite spending most of the match at the mercy of his opponent's unreturnable serves, he solved the Raonic riddle in the third-set tiebreaker. It was like watching Neo at the end of The Matrix as he stopped the bullets with a simple "No" and began to see the world in ones and zeros. Federer finally started getting returns back in, and two bad forehands from Raonic gave Federer the breathing room he needed. The world No. 3 punctuated the victory with a forehand-return winner on match point. Swag.
But the story here was Raonic, who once again forced Federer to go the distance. Raonic, 21, has been the eighth best player on the ATP this year, and he's firmly inserted himself into that cadre of tall hitters -- alongside Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and John Isner -- who clearly make the top four uncomfortable. One thing that sets Raonic apart from those other four is his quiet fire. Despite his calm demeanor, you can sense the intensity bubbling underneath the surface.
"Today I stepped on court believing I could win, and left the court knowing I could have won," Raonic told reporters after the match. Belief, ambition, confidence. It's only a matter of time.