May 13, 2013

No Contest

The draws in Madrid were rife with upsets from the start this year, but when all was said and done it was some of the strongest stars in the sport left standing on finals weekend. A couple have only just come into their own on this tricky surface, but the ultimate winners were those who've shown, time and again, just how much of a threat they are, no matter what court they're playing on.

Maria Sharapova once described herself as a cow on ice when she played on clay, but a title at Roland Garros last year, followed by a repeat in Stuttgart might belie that statement. She made her way to the Madrid final, her fourth of the year, without dropping a set. Defending champion Serena Williams, meanwhile, never a sure thing on the surface herself, had actually had a few hiccups along the way -- after being pushed to a tiebreak in her opening set with Yulia Putintseva and losing serve to Lourdes Dominguez-Lino, she dropped a weird bagel to Anabel Medina Garrigues in the quarters. But she too eventually made her fourth championship match of the year, extending her win streak to eighteen straight matches since Doha.

The history between these two champions has been long, but fairly one-sided. Since Maria's breakthrough win at Wimbledon nine years ago, she's been a disappointing 1-11 against the world #1, notching nine sets in which she won just one game or less. The Russian's best recent attempt came in the Miami final, where she'd scored an early lead against her rival, but it's remained a long, long time since she's managed a defeat. And this weekend would keep the stretch going -- in the hour-plus match, Maria was able to convert just one of two break chances and won barely a third of her second serve attempts. Serena stayed the stronger player again and in straight set win, earned her seventh clay court title and put her, once again, in prime position to finally end a long drought in Paris. A loss-less season hasn't necessarily meant guaranteed success in Paris, of course, but Williams' repeat on a court that's never been her best might set the stage for quite a run at the next Grand Slam.

The men's final wasn't quite as big battle between two greats, but it certainly pitted one rising star against a seasoned, if imperfect, champion. Stanislas Wawrinka, having won three of his four titles on clay during his career, was coming off a huge victory over clay specialist David Ferrer in Estoril and had upset Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych already in Madrid. Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, had given up his stranglehold in Monte Carlo, and shown he could be beaten by even less formidable foes on his best surface. Still, since returning to play in February, he'd made at least the championship match of every event he'd played and won three titles to boot. He was seeded just fifth in his homeland's Masters, and though he faced quite a scare against Ferrer in the quarters, eventually kept his final streak running strong.

Nadal's had a tough time in Madrid in the past -- his one title here is largely overshadowed by losses to big rivals and weird tricks of weird surfaces. And against a top tier player like Wawrinka, Rafa's fate was far from certain on Sunday. But he took control from the start, dropped just three points on his first serve and didn't allow a break opportunity during the match. Winning an impressive 22-7 points on return, he never gave the Swiss a chance to get in the match, and with his first clay court Masters of the year under his belt now, his confidence must be greatly increased as he looks to close out the season.

While all four of this weekend's finalists have shown they are forces on the surface, the champions' dominance in their respective finals proves they're still the favorites against any opponent. If they are able to keep it up, there's few who will be able to stop them -- and the battles for even the biggest titles this year might be wrapped up before they even start.

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