October 18, 2008

The New Reign in Spain

There was a battle of kings taking place in Spain this week.

The Mutua Madrileña Masters held in Madrid marked the first tournament since the U.S. Open when the current #1 tennis player in the world and the man from whom he wrested the title would be battling for the same crown.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer haven't once met since Wimbledon, when Rafa's win ensured that he'd overtake Roger in the ATP rankings. Their paths could have crossed at the Beijing Olympics, but my dear James Blake notched his first victory against Federer and prevented the match-up. The next opportunity came at Flushing Meadows in September, but that train was derailed after Andy Murray's two-day battle which ultimately stopped Rafa one step short of his first U.S. Open final. In both instances the early elimination of one cleared the road for the other to eventually take the title.

That would not be the case in Madrid.

Current tennis royalty were all present to battle for the title -- each of the top twelve players had entered the tournament, but, as should be expected, the draw was rife with upsets. Not only did my frustrating favorite suffer a loss to Gilles Simon in the second round, but Nikolay Davydenko fell to the inconsistent Robby Ginepri, David Ferrer dropped straight sets to fellow Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, and Andy Roddick lost to French showman Gael Monfils.

The biggest shocks, however, came in the semifinals when both Roger and Rafael, champions here in 2006 & 2005 respectively, fell to their upstart opponents.

Andy Murray was apparently eager to avenge his U.S. Open loss to Federer and came back after dropping the first set to take the last two 6-3, 7-5. I can't say I'm wholly surprised -- despite my bias against him, even I have to admit Andy's had a pretty good year. He fell as low as #22 in the spring after a second round loss in Miami, but quickly gathered up points over the summer and reached his first Grand Slam final in New York and a career high #4 ranking.

But the real story this week was France's Simon, who followed up his victory over Blake with tough wins over Ginepri, Ivo Karlovic, and finally Rafa, in a match that lasted nearly three and a half hours.

While unseeded at this tournament, Simon was hardly out of his league in Madrid. It may seem like he's come out of nowhere, but just this year he's posted wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Novak Djokovic and even Roger Federer. He's won titles in Casablanca, Indianapolis and Bucharest (for the second straight year), and has seen his ranking soar as high as #13. A win in Madrid could bring him into the top ten for the first time.

On paper the match-up is actually pretty close. Simon and Murray have split their only two meetings, both on clay. Gilles has won five titles to Andy's six, they've played about the same number of matches this year and have similar percentages on stats like first serve percentages, points won, and break point conversions. But with a higher ranking and more than twice the career prize money, Andy is easily the favorite to win the Madrid championship.

I, of course, am rooting for the upset.

There are only a few more tournaments of this caliber left before the year-end championships in Shanghai. Clearly a title in Madrid would be a crowning moment for either player, and I'm sure tomorrow's final will be an all-out battle on the court over which each hopes to rule.

And to the eventual King of Madrid, may your reign be long and prosperous.

And as always, serve well and play hard!

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