By Maud Watson
For the first time in 14 attempts, Fernando Verdasco defeated his compatriot Rafael Nadal, handing Nadal one of his earliest defeats in a clay court tournament. Some credit has to be given to Verdasco. He played some good ball, especially in the opening set, and unlike in their previous encounters, he didn’t throw in the towel when it appeared nearly all hope was lost. But this match was mostly about Nadal, and this was one of his ugliest losses. The fact that Nadal appeared out of sorts and off his game wasn’t surprising. He was one of the most vocal critics of the change to blue clay, even before the tournament got underway, so the fact that he at times appeared unsure should not have come as a shock. He should be more self-assured next week in Rome when the familiar red dirt is under the soles of his shoes. But the fact that he blew a double break lead in the third – against a guy that he owned – is troubling, no matter what the surface. With the exception of Monte Carlo and Barcelona, he’s developed a habit of struggling to close out matches in recent memory, and this time he paid for it. As superstitious as he is, a loss like this is apt to creep into his mind down the road. The way Nadal handled himself after the match also left something be desired. It’s understandable if he wants to boycott the event next year, and he’s not the only one to suggest he’d do so, with Djokovic also hinting at such an action (though it would be nice if both guys would give organizers a chance to fix the slippery court problem). But Nadal’s arguments for boycotting lacked tact and came off as sour grapes. He’ll need a good run in Rome to feel confident for Paris, or else what he did in Monte Carlo and Barcelona will be for naught.
We’re more than well under way in Madrid, but the talk about the blue courts has hardly decreased. Players’ and fan’s reactions continue to be all over the map, with some liking it, some indifferent, and others making it well known that it doesn’t have their seal of approval. Personally, I’m loving the blue. From a spectator’s point of view, the ball is easier to see, and the blue clay hasn’t denied fans the opportunity to watch some highly competitive battles. The only general complaint – a complaint that Tiriac thankfully recognized as legit – is that the courts are too slippery. How much of this problem stems from the dye used, the structure under the clay, and the courts not yet fully settled remains to be seen, but it is a problem that organizers and tournament officials, including former No. 1 Carlos Moya, claim can be fixed and arguably should not impact Madrid being contested on blue clay in 2013. Besides, we saw some pretty nasty injuries on Monte Carlo’s main show court, proving that no clay court is perfect. In short, Madrid’s choice to go blue is not a failed experiment, and organizers should be given the opportunity to correct issues before any final court color decisions are made for the future.
Lost in all the chatter about the blue clay was the fact that Aga Radwanska has quietly moved up a spot in the rankings to the number three player in the world. And don’t be deceived by the apparently large gap between the Pole and the two rivals ahead of her. Radwanska has little to defend and much to gain in the coming weeks, which cannot be said for Azarenka or Sharapova. If she continues her run of fine form, she’ll be knocking at the door for number two, and perhaps even number one. There’s still work to be done for Aga, but in many ways, her potential continued ascendency up the rankings could be great for the women’s game. Sharapova has done well to fight back to form and up the rankings, and the improvements Azarenka has made to become a Grand Slam champion and reach No. 1 are both remarkable achievements. But it would be refreshing to have a crafty player at the top – and as an added bonus, one who’s quiet!
When last Tsonga was making tennis headlines, it was due to his comments of what he perceived to be biased officiating in his three-set loss to Nadal in the Miami quarterfinals. Many jumped on him for that, but he’s quickly turned around any damage to his reputation with the sportsmanship he exhibited in his straight-set win over Ryan Harrison this week in Madrid. In the second set tiebreak, Tsonga chased after a drop shot that the chair umpire thought he had reached in once bounce in order to the win the point. But Tsonga knew the ball had bounced twice, and despite the fact that it might have eventually led to losing the tiebreak and a third set, he admitted to the double bounce and gave the point to Harrison. Such an act, especially in a tiebreak, is a rarity, and it’s great to see this kind of sportsmanship.
Ms. King Goes to Washington
Billie Jean King continues to be a crusader, this time going to the marble halls of Washington DC in order to ask the government to assist the USTA in its efforts to reach more communities. The USTA has done good work, refurbishing over 25,000 courts in public parks and schools over the last seven years, and anything that will help grow the sport should be encouraged. How much help the government may prove to be is a complete unknown, however. After all, as the old joke goes, “If ‘pro’ is the opposite of ‘con,’ then isn’t the opposite of progress Congress?”