May 11, 2014

Now, That's More Like It

Things got a little crazy there the last couple weeks, didn't they?

Across the board during the early clay court season, we saw long-standing champions fall and new victors crowned -- many capturing their maiden trophies, others coming seeming to come back from the grave, and, even more surprising, some long-dominating forces falling by the wayside. But this week at the Mutua Madrid Open, order seemed to be restored in the tennis world. And with just a few weeks left before the start of the French Open, it might be the perfect time for that to happen.

That's not to say everything went as planned. A still-injured Serena Williams, champion here two years in a row, pulled out of her quarterfinal against Petra Kvitova and Na Li, whose first Major breakthrough came on this surface three years ago, gave up her lead to Maria Sharapova and fell in a two-and-a-half hour battle. Ultimately the Russian, at her lowest ranking since 2011, was able to fight her say to the final and faced off against risen star Simona Halep, playing in her eighth final in twelve months. The Romanian upstart came out swinging, too, taking advantage of weak serving by her opponent for a 6-1 first set. But Sharapova was able to right herself in the second, losing just six points on serve to force a decider. She took control there too, holding onto an early break and closing out the match in just under two hours. It was her second title of the year and went one better than her performance last year, pushing her back to #7 in the world. It's still well off her career best, of course, but it certainly puts her back on the track we're used to seeing her on. And it could give her just the confidence she needs if she's going to make a real play for another Roland Garros title.

Rafael Nadal certainly has more of those trophies than anyone conceivably needs, but after his performance early this part of the season, his potential to take home trophy #9 was coming into question. He wasn't losing to top-tier players like Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer, but to compatriots like David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro -- the latter of whom he'd never lost to before. In Madrid, though, he put the applecart back on its wheels -- with Nole withdrawing with injury and Fed skipping the event to have a couple more twins, Nadal was the clear favorite here. To make things easier Stanislas Wawrinka, who bested him in the Melbourne final, was stunned by young Austrian Dominic Thiem in his opener, and even Andy Murray, always a threat but sort of struggling this year, fell in straight sets to Barcelona finalist Santiago Giraldo. Ultimately Rafa faced off Sunday against a surging Kei Nishikori, whose run to the final hoisted him to a career high #9 ranking. The Japanese star, a winner in Barca and Memphis already this year, had upset Milos Raonic and David Ferrer this week and even took the first set from Nadal. But the King of Clay rebounded in the second and was able to pounce when Nishikori called for the trainer to treat his back. He was ahead 3-0 in the decider, too, when his opponent was forced to retire, clinching the win in a way no one wants, but at least shaking some of the cobwebs out of his game.

While this weekend's champions certainly have the resumés that make everyone take notice when they hit the courts, their prospects at the big -- and bigger -- events down the road had come into question in recent weeks. But their wins today did a lot to remind us just what they're capable of.

And while we all love a little bit of drama here and there, it's sort of nice to know things are getting back to normal.

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