May 8, 2011

Make or Break

Let's talk for a minute about just how important the Mutua Madrid Open has become to the course of the tennis year.

Since the tournament shifted to clay two years ago there has seemed to be a shift in its significance. Now held in the first half of the year, before the second Major -- as opposed to the hardcourt event that had been contested in October -- there's now a lot more game to be played before the season is up. And even if the surface accounts for a relatively small portion of the year, past winners have really kicked themselves into high gear after tasting victory here.

In 2009 Roger Federer had been having an unusually non-prolific year. Though he had made at least the semis of four of the five tournaments he'd played, he hadn't won a title, losing a grueling final in Melbourne to Rafael Nadal. But once he stunned the Clay Court King in the Madrid things began to look up -- he completed a career Grand Slam a few weeks later with a victory in Paris, broke the record for Major titles and reclaimed the #1 ranking he'd given up for nearly a year. Not a bad way to turn things around.

Nadal pulled off a similar feat last year. After spending the first few months of the year recovering from injury, he finally got back his mojo on the clay and dethroned the defending champion in Madrid with a first class performance. He followed up his own Masters-title record setting by taking back the title in Roland Garros, extending his run at Wimbledon and shocking the world when he completed his own Grand Slam in New York. Back at the top of the rankings he'd set the stage to be the man to beat in 2011.

Of course, that was before Novak Djokovic came along. Famously undefeated this year, I think most of us expected his miraculous streak would end this week when he was slated to finally meet Nadal on clay. Both advanced with little drama to the final -- the third time they were meeting with a championship on the line this year -- but most predicted a different result. Novak had never beaten Rafa on the dirt, much less in a clay court title bout, and surely the Spaniard would show him who was boss, especially in his homeland.

But before we could blink an eye, Djokovic was off to a 4-0 lead. Rafa got one break back, even denying the Serb when he tried to serve out the set and pulling even. But when Nadal was serving for a tiebreak, Nole broke him at love and never looked back. Despite being broken to start the second set -- thanks in part to a fabulous between-the-legs lob that just fell inside Djokovic's court -- he quickly regained composure, won the next game and broke again a few later to stun the crowd and claim his astonishing sixth crown of the year.

So with all the talk over just how long Djokovic's streak can last, past precedent seems to suggest there are a couple more wins left in him. And if/when he does lose a match along the way, he shouldn't be worried -- he certainly looks on track to take home another Major or two this year. And several more in the years to come.

Ironically, the Madrid Open has not set the same precedent for the women. Since coming here in 2009, both winners Dinara Safina and Aravane Rezai have subsequently faltered in the months that followed. Safina put on a dismal showing at the '09 French Open final and has since been largely sidelined or ineffective due to injury. Rezai, who'd shocked Venus Williams in last year's final, hasn't won more than a single match at any event since last July.

I certainly hope the same fate doesn't befall Petra Kvitova, who earlier today smashed her way to the biggest title of her young career. Barely seeded at the event, the top-ranked Czech woman followed a win over world #2 Vera Zvonareva by beating Australian Open finalist Na Li in the semis. On Sunday against Victoria Azarenka -- who's been more than impressive in securing two titles of her own this year -- she was similarly impressive. After losing a three game lead in the first set, she held strong in the breaker to get the lead. The pair traded serves in the second, but Kvitova finally secured a lead at 4-3 she never surrendered. Firing off forty aces to just ten from Vika, the brand new world #10 certainly has what it takes to be at the top -- and I'm confident she even has what it takes to stay there.

The two new champions in Madrid this week have created huge opportunities for themselves over the last few days -- having now beaten some of the strongest and most dominant players on a very tricky surface, they have clearly set the stage not just for Roland Garros, but for the rest of the year. Whether their streaks end or their fortunes turn of course has yet to be determined, but if they can keep it up, we'll be talking about them both for a long time to come.

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