May 10, 2012

Feeling Blue

By now you've all heard the complaints. The strange blue clay of Madrid is slippery, it's hard to see the ball fly, it's just a way for the tournament to sell out for a sponsor, it looks like a Smurfing pile of Smurf. But when you see the surface claim arguably the best clay court player of all time as a victim -- well then, then, you really have something to complain about.

Earlier today Rafael Nadal, who fell in the final here last year to Novak Djokovic, was handed an even more surprising loss. Despite putting on one of the best shows of 2009, Fernando Verdasco had won just four sets off the former world #1 in their previous thirteen meetings. But Nadal's fellow Spaniard came out swinging, capitalizing on both his break chances in the opening set and creating a lead for the first time on the surface. Nadal fought back, though, and after forcing a third set had a couple chances to serve out that match. But Verdasco kept his cool -- he rattled off five straight games and avoided a late rally by his compatriot, and after more than three hours sealed what might be the biggest win of his career.

It was Nadal's earliest loss on the surface in eight years, and he wasn't the only casualty of the blue clay. Eighth seeded John Isner fell in straight sets to former top-ten player Marin Cilic, and Marion Bartoli lost a long struggle to Sorana Cirstea in her opener. Alexandr Dolgopolov, who'd put up a mediocre 12-9 record on the year so far, pulled off an impressive win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Petra Kvitova, after winning her first match handily, was handed an equally one-sided defeat a round later.

But while these players' moods may reflect the color of the courts, not everyone is upset. And the results so far this week suggest anyone can take advantage of the spell the clay casts.

Verdasco had fallen out of the top twenty a few weeks ago, but he may have turned his year around with Thursday's win. He should be careful his hangover doesn't impede his next match, though -- he has a decent record on the surface against Tomas Berdych, his opponent on Friday, and if he stays strong he could make a run even further in his homeland. And Janko Tipsarevic, coming off a super-successful end to 2011, has won just two matches for each he's lost this year. He'll have to bring his A-game against countryman Djokovic on Friday, but he's beaten him before and could just rattle the defending champ.

Not surprisingly, the ladies have seen a few more upsets along the way, but while many of the favorites are still alive, the pressure will be on in the quarterfinals. Aggie Radwanska, who's still only lost to world #1 Victoria Azarenka this year, will face qualifier Varvara Lepchenko on Friday -- the Uzbek native has dispatched Shahar Peer and Francesca Schiavone already, so she's playing with some confidence. It'll be a tall order, but momentum may be on her side. And Lucie Hradecka, who also made it through the qualifying rounds, has similarly beaten three higher-ranked players, including Kvitova. She'll again be the underdog against Sam Stosur in the next round, but the Czech's won a doubles crown at Roland Garros -- a couple more singles wins may not be that far behind.

But perhaps the player with the biggest opportunity is David Ferrer, a clay court specialist coming off a run to the final in Barcelona. The world #6 faces 2009 titleist Roger Federer next, and though he's never beaten him in twelve tries, Thursday's results could give Ferrer some confidence. After saving match points against Nicolas Almagro today, he's shown he has more than a little fight in him, and if he catches King Fed a little off-footed, like Verdasco before him, he too might be able to score that elusive first win.

Who knows if the underdogs remaining will be able to pull off the upsets? But if even a couple of them do, you can be sure the complaints from the favorites will grow louder. The blue courts of Madrid may ultimately not be long-lived, but they have already seemed to impact. Whether it's for this event -- or for the rest of the season -- we have yet to see.

In the meantime, I'll go back to a normal font -- I don't know first hand how hard it is to find the ball in this sea of blue, but this post is giving me a headache.

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