The lapis basins set in the silver-blue metal cases of this ground-breaking venue are certainly eye-catching. At first sight, the unrelieved intensity of the vast Manolo Santana court seems to jump from the television screen.
Certainly the ball is pin-sharp—the colour contrast between blue and yellow is the venue’s biggest advantage—but the overall effect is dazzling, and the deep sunshine-and-shade contrasts of courts 2 and 3 make even the ball hard to follow
Aesthetics are, of course, a matter of personal taste and even the most conservative of tennis fans will surely grow used to an event that has been designed to create fresh interest and increase audiences for tennis.
More serious, however, is the quality of the playing surface and the confidence of the stars of the show: the players. And while most seemed less than enamoured by the departure from traditional terracotta, most also withheld judgement about its performance ahead of the tournament. Now the big names have all put the blue to the test and the messages were—well mixed.
The first dissenting voice came from world No1 and defending champion, Novak Djokovic.
“To me that’s not tennis. Either I come out with football shoes or I invite Chuck Norris to advise me how to play on this court. When you slide on the red clay you have a feeling you can stop and recover from that step. But here, whatever you do, you are always slipping.
“Not a single player—not woman, not man—I didn’t hear anyone say ‘I like blue clay.’”
He certainly struggled in his opener against Spanish qualifier, Daniel Gimeno-Traver, finally winning in three sets. The women’s No1, Victoria Azarenka, also survived a tough match against a qualifier in the second round, while defending champion Petra Kvitova quickly became the highest ranked casualty: She, too, fell to a qualifier.
Nevertheless, there were few other serious upsets. Indeed, on the men’s side, only two seeds fell before the third round, and both did so to former top-10 players: Feliciano Lopez to Jurgen Melzer and John Isner to Marin Cilic.
Meanwhile, several of the top women were, it seemed, gliding rather than sliding over the blue grit for the loss of very few games: Agnieszka Radwanska, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Na Li hurtled through their early matches.
But the tournament could not overlook the damning verdict of Djokovic. Before his main rivals, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, played their openers, the centre court was, it was reported, the subject of some serious over-night work.
Whether those nocturnal efforts improved things, or simply the warmer, drier weather, the noise of raucous skidding subsided to the rather more temperate slip-sliding of Madrid’s orange siblings.
Many of the men who skittered and sprinted their way through their opening matches boasted nimble footwork—David Ferrer, Gilles Simon, Alex Dolgopolov—but several bigger men with the higher centres of gravity also appeared to settle onto the grit. Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and Fernando Verdasco all advanced.
This contrast in winning formulae served to highlight another interesting quality of the controversial clay in the high Spanish plain, for the Manolo Santana court was playing fast. And that gave one early confrontation—between some of the best footwork and some of the biggest power on the tour—not just intrigue but the ‘wow’ factor.
Federer’s opener was a repeat of his third-round match in Indian Wells against Milos Raonic, who has rapidly taken on the mantle of the most dangerous unseeded man in tennis.
Back in California, Raonic took a first set tie-break before losing to Federer in three: a performance to fill him with confidence. Also in Raonic’s favour was his recent success on clay. He is very mobile for such a big man and has the patience and variety to test the experts: He beat Andy Murray in the Barcelona quarter-finals and then took Ferrer to two tie-breaks.
The final weight in the Raonic scales was Federer’s lack of match play. Back from more than five weeks off for rest and recuperation, the Swiss came to Madrid with no matches on clay—and again he lost the first set.
But the quick hands and footwork of Federer, and slowly but surely picking up the Raonic serve, gradually reeled in the big Canadian. Federer hurtled to the net on both first and second serves to survive numerous break points and take the initiative, and he edged the match in a final-set tie-break.
Footwork won out again as Federer, clearly sharpened by his first match, took Richard Gasquet apart in under an hour to set up a quarter-final against Ferrer.
Twelve times these two have met and 12 times Federer has won, but Ferrer is one of the players whose nimbleness seems able to handle the conditions—and he might also take heart from the antics of one of his compatriots.
Verdasco met Nadal for the 14th time in the knowledge that he had failed to beat his Davis Cup teammate once. On clay in particular, Nadal had hurt him badly: In this year’s Barcelona semi, Verdasco won just four games; in last year’s Monte Carlo final, it was only one.
But again, the unusual qualities of that blue clay would create drama. On pacey, hard courts, Verdasco had come close to beating Nadal more than once. In Cincinnati last year, it took three tie-breaks—the last eventually taken by Nadal 11-9—to separate them. In the semis of the 2009 Australian Open, it took five sets and more than five hours. So with the Madrid surface playing fast, the power game of Verdasco could come to the fore.
And while Nadal is the most adept player at using the controlled slide to manoeuvre around the clay, he, like Djokovic, had admitted to problems with grip after beating Nikolay Davydenko in his opener. Nadal had gone so far as to seek permission to wear grass-court shoes but was denied. With one of his tools blunted, he became vulnerable to the pace of Verdasco.
They split the first two sets and, when Nadal went up by two breaks of serve in the third, he looked home and dry. But Verdasco powered back to take the set and the match.
It was a truly memorable moment for the man from Madrid, and memorable too for the man on a 22-match clay winning streak. Nadal’s parting shot to the tournament organisers added considerable grist to condemnatory mill:
“The movements are very important for me and here I cannot move so I cannot hit the ball the way that I want…I tried my best to prepare but I wasn’t good enough to adapt my game to this court. The only thing that I know is that if things continue like this I am very sad but next year will be one less tournament in my calendar.”
Meanwhile, the 2012 running of the Madrid Masters saw more face-offs between dancing feet and big-hitting power. The light-footed Dolgopolov out-did Tsonga and the heavy-striking Berdych trumped the acrobatics of Monfils.
But who will be left standing when the trophy is won? Will the light-footed Federer, whose socks are as white at the end of his matches as the start, triumph over Djokovic’s fleet, sliding athleticism or the sledge-hammer arms of del Potro and Berdych?
There could be many more twists and turns before this story has run its course.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas