Report Card: Grading the Madrid Open
The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. This past week, Roger Federer continued his stellar year, Serena Williams fired up a flare for all to see and Madrid's blue clay dominated the headlines.
Madrid Open: B-plus. For all of the drama, the tournament actually turned out to be highly entertaining. In fact, I wouldn't mind this nutty surface if it were used outside of the lead-up period for the French Open. It yielded fast, aggressive, first-strike tennis, which was refreshing given the trend toward slowing down courts around the world. But as I said last week, players shouldn't be forced to play this style on these substandard courts in advance of Roland Garros.
Serena Williams: A. Let's look at her record on clay this year: two titles (her only titles), 5-0 on green clay, 2-0 on red clay and 6-0 on blue clay. All the while she insists that clay is actually her favorite surface, even preferring it over grass. Sure, the blue and green clay aren't substitutes for the true European red clay at the French Open, and her red-clay wins were at Fed Cup over two players ranked outside the top 100. But she has beaten Sam Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka on clay this year, and her 6-1, 6-3 destruction of No. 1 Azarenka in the Madrid final sent a startling and simple message: I'm back.
Roger Federer: A. Federer collected his Tour-leading fourth title of the year and record-tying 20th Masters trophy, and climbed to No. 2 in the rankings for the first time since March 2011. Oh, and Federer staked his claim to the label of G.O.A.T. on Blue Clay (hey, it's a thing). This week marks the first time since May 2010 that Federer is ranked ahead of Nadal, and he should send Novak Djokovic a basket of muffins for helping him do it. Djokovic's 2011 domination of Nadal helped Federer close the point gap, and the 30-year-old Swiss did the rest: Federer is 45-3 with seven titles since his semifinal loss to Djokovic at the 2011 U.S. Open.
Tomas Berdych: A. The Czech didn't drop a set until the final and he looked at home on the blue clay, taking advantage of his big game on the quick surface to dominate Gael Monfils and Fernando Verdasco and edge Juan Martin del Potro in two tiebreakers. (He even posted New Order's Blue Monday on his Facebook page mid-week.) With a semifinal appearance in Monte Carlo and runner-up finish in Madrid, he's rounding into form nicely for the French Open.
Juan Martin del Potro: B-plus. On the heels of winning the Estoril title, Del Potro advanced to the semifinals in Madrid without losing a set, including victories against tricky opponents in Mikhail Youzhny, Marin Cilic and Alexandr Dolgopolov. You have to like Del Potro's consistency in making the quarterfinals or better in eight of nine tournaments this year, but forgive me for my impatience. I'm still waiting for a big result.
Victoria Azarenka: B. Azarenka hasn't been quite the same dominant player since winning Indian Wells in mid-March. Back-to-back final losses to Sharapova and Williams have dented her aura and swagger, though really, that process started back in Miami, where she narrowly overcame Dominika Cibulkova before losing to Marion Bartoli. She was pushed deep in the third set in Stuttgart by Mona Barthel, and had to battle for wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Andrea Hlavackhova, Ana Ivanovic and Li Na in Madrid. These are minor criticisms, of course, as Azarenka is wearing the No. 1 crown well with her back-to-back finals appearances. But her losses to Williams and Sharapova weren't even close, and the gap between her and the rest of the field appears to be shrinking.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal: C. Neither man looked comfortable on the slippery clay all week, and it clearly seemed to affect them mentally. The fast courts favored neither player, and it was awkward watching them try to either adjust (Nadal looked like he was actively trying not to slide when he went wide) or just play through them (Djokovic slipping and sliding all over the place). I can understand their frustration, as Madrid offered them no preparation for their true quest, the title at Roland Garros.
Lucie Hradecka: A. The funny thing is that Hradecka almost skipped Madrid altogether, but her doubles partner persuaded her to give it a go. Though ranked as high as 41st in her career, Hradecka, who turns 27 next week, came into Madrid ranked No. 105. But after making it through qualifying, she scored her first wins over top five players, upsetting Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur en route to the semifinals. The key to her success: her serve. The Czech fired 55 aces overall, including 19 in a 7-6 (8) 7-6 (6) victory against Stosur.
Petra Kvitova: D. It looks like we'll have to keep waiting for the Wimbledon champion to snap out of it. Kvitova is 4-4 in WTA Tour matches since getting to the Australian Open semifinals, and the woman who won six titles last year still hasn't made a final in 2012. Her second-round loss to Hradecka doesn't seem as bad in retrospect after Hradecka's career week, and the blue clay was nothing like the surface on which Kvitova won Madrid last year. But no more excuses. Petra needs to start winning again.
Ana Ivanovic: B-minus. It wasn't a bad showing on the whole by Ivanovic, who defeated a quality player in Nadia Petrova in the second round. Ivanovic had the misfortune of drawing Azarenka in the third round, but the Serb seemed up to the task in building a 4-1 lead. She squandered the lead as quickly as she built it, however, dropping the next five games and eventually losing the match 6-4, 6-4.
Television coverage: F. Television coverage at mandatory tournaments should be mandatory. Simple as that.
Fernando Verdasco: A. Sure, the surface favored the big-hitting Verdasco, but I don't care if you're playing on quicksand, swampland or water: Coming back from down a double break at 2-5 in the third set against Nadal is an incredible achievement, especially by a player who's just now emerging from a prolonged slump and has a history of shakiness in big moments. To finally topple Nadal after 14 losses in a row, and to do it in his hometown? Heck, I changed my mind, FeVer. You get an "A-plus."
Milos Raonic: B. Raonic's form on clay is gradually improving since his poor display in Monte Carlo, where he looked out of sorts in a first-round loss to Albert Montanes. He backed up his semifinal result in Barcelona by beating David Nalbandian in the first round of Madrid before pushing Federer to a third-set tiebreaker. The key for Raonic now will be to get his ranking up so he isn't constantly running into the top players early. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen this week in Rome. He lost to Florian Mayer 7-6 (5), 6-4 on Sunday.
Agnieszka Radwanska: C. "C" is for "Congratulations, you made another semifinal and meekly lost to Victoria Azarenka." That's the definition of an average performance for the No. 3 player in the world. When it comes to playing Vika, Aga needs an exorcism to get the demons out of her head.
Maria Sharapova: C. Much like Radwanska's head-to-head with Azarenka, the perceived rivalry between Sharapova and Serena is just that: perceived. They may battle off the court for the marketing spotlight, but ever since Sharapova beat Williams at Wimbledon in 2004 and again at the Tour Championships that year, it's been all Serena, all the time. Williams has won seven consecutive meetings, including the last two by identical 6-1, 6-3 scores. The women's game would benefit greatly if Sharapova could turn it around so that matches between the two most prominent stars in the game were actually dramatic tussles.
John Isner: C-minus. In his first match on European clay since beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Davis Cup in France, Isner fell to Cilic 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3). The question with Isner isn't about ability or potential. He's proved that he can bring it in the big matches. But can he bring it when no one's watching?
Varvara Lepchenko: A-minus. The 25-year-old boosted her hopes of making the U.S. Olympic team with a quarterfinal run in Madrid. The draw opened up nicely for her after she survived qualifying, as she faced only one seed (a slumping Francesca Schiavone) before losing to Radwanska in the quarters. With that result, Lepchenko surged ahead of Venus Williams to become the fourth-ranked American woman, at No. 59, one spot behind Vania King and four ahead of Venus. (The top 56 women in the June 11 rankings receive direct acceptance into the Olympic singles tournament, with a maximum of four per country.) Her progress stalled in Rome, though, as she lost the last round of qualifying to Anna Chakvetadze.
Venus Williams: C. There's no shame to losing to Angelique Kerber these days, but you'd think the fast blue clay in Madrid would have favored Williams' game. The second-round exit adds to the pressure over the next three weeks, with Williams needing good results in Rome and Paris to earn her ticket to the London Olympics.