In the first full day of action in the men’s draw, 3 young Americans qualified for the second round, while troubled seeds Marin Cilic and Karen Khachanov had to toil for 3 hours each to progress.
Cilic (Cro, 11) d. M. Klizan (Svk, 61, Q) 6-4 2-6 7-6 (0)
Marin Cilic has been by far the most disappointing top player of 2019, struggling to win consecutive matches, falling out of the top 10, and looking more and more discouraged as the weeks went by. However, today he managed to avoid a fifth consecutive defeat, earning a gutsy victory against the likes of Martin Klizan, a sly, left-handed fox on clay. Cilic had never been a great player on the surface, loving as he does a nice flat ball, but has improved enormously in the last 2 seasons, reaching the semis in Rome last year and 2 consecutive quarters in Paris.
The win wasn’t pretty, with the Croat wasting many opportunities in the first set before finally pebbling through. On the contrary, Klizan was clinical in the second set, winning 3 break points out of 3, and generally looked more assured in the decider, earning several more chances than his opponent did, and putting Cilic on the brink of elimination with 4 match points. Weirdly enough, Cilic didn’t prevail in 2 of the categories that are considered essential for success in today’s scene, the percentage of points won on the second serve and the number of points won under 5 shots, but the steamrolling he performed in the third’s set tie-break, which concluded the contest after 2 hours and 48 minutes, might be an indication of a newly found mental solidity, which will be tested again in Round 2 against Jan-Lennard Struff.
Khachanov (Rus, 13) d. J. Munar (Spa, 55) 6-4 6-7 (5) 6-3
An even longer battle took place between Karen Khachanov and Jaume Munar, who threw everything they had at each other for 3 hours sharp, with the first set alone taking almost 80 minutes to complete. Both based in Spain, they display different interpretations of the clay game: hailing from Nadal’s academy, Munar is almost an archetype of the classic counterpunching style, trying to dictate with his forehand whenever he can and happy to retrieve every ball. Khachanov, one of the most powerful specimens on tour, instead relies on his heavy shots following generous backswings, and usually takes a while to get into the match, as proven by his mediocre clay performances on 2 out of 3 matches (20-17 since 2016), counter-balanced by 2 fourth round runs at the French Open. The Russian was coming off a bad streak of results (5 losses in a row), with the quarter-finals in Indian Wells representing the only solace of the season, after last year’s impressive win in Bercy against Djokovic.
And Khachanov was clearly looking for a good result, as he grinded his way back from 3-0 deficits in the first 2 sets, ultimately pulling ahead in the decider, closing with a backhand volley on his third match-point, a fitting conclusion, as he had a phenomenal 40/46 at the net. The players broke each other in every set, constantly trying to gain an inch of ground over the opponent, but ultimately the Russian’s more aggressive play prevailed, totalling 50 winners and 50 unforced errors.
An hard-fought win like this might be a season-changing event for the Russian (although that won’t be his thought at the moment), and he will now face Verdasco.
Opelka (USA, 58, Q) d. P. Carreno Busta (Spa, 42) 7-6 (5) 6-4
The first match of the day involved American perch Reilly Opelka and former top 10 Pablo Carreno Busta. A year ago, the match-up would have felt infinitely more lopsided than it does now. 6ft11 qualifier Opelka, who is the living proof that American tennis follows the advice of Tormund Giantsbane vis-à-vis what milk to drink while growing up, has been making strides since autumn 2018, beating twice along the way the man he’ll be forever compared to, John Isner, and winning his first ATP tournament in Uniondale. What is interesting about his rise is that he seems to be developing a lot faster than other super-sized peers – Isner, Karlovic, and Anderson all made the top 100 around the age of 24, whereas Opelka isn’t even 22 yet – and his greater aptitude is clear at a glance: he moves well for such a man, and even hits a decent backhand, especially when facilitated in the backswing by a slower surface – he has actually stated that clay is his favoured domain.
As for the Spaniard, he’s not having a great year: after crushing out in the super tie-break at the Australian Open against Nishikori (many will remember his refusal to shake the umpire’s hand after a controversial decision that made him abandon the match mentally), he’s now coming off of a serious shoulder injury that kept him out from early February, preventing him from defending the Miami semi-finals placement of last year and sinking his ranking to number 42. He’s played in the past 2 weeks, but has shown a worrying lack of fitness and focus, losing badly in the third set against Frenchmen Benoit Paire and Jeremy Chardy in Barcelona and Estoril, completely abandoning the competition in the latter occasion. Despite preferring hardcourts due to his aggressive return and flattish forehand (resembling Bautista Agut in this regard), his court coverage and low error rate make him a good clay performer, as he proved when he reached the French Open quarter-finals in 2017, his best season yet.
During the match, it couldn’t be helped to wonder whether the Spaniard is still limited by his injury, his first serve had an average speed of 182 km/h and the second of 146 km/h, the latter datum being particularly worrying. Carreno is trying to change his serve motion (unrelated to the injury, he’s actually straining the shoulder a little more), reverting to a more traditional trophy position, whereas he previously started with his right arm raised, but it’s still a clear work-in-progress. Moreover, the trajectories often looked anodyne for Opelka, who returned 76% of serves. The American played very aggressively, coming to the net 23 times and offering some tasty serve&volleys from the deuce court, and often going for the winner down the line (although he’ll need to work on his left arm, which is often two open in preparation and makes him unstable on the shot), almost always dictating the play. Carreno improved in the latter part of the set, even earning a break point at 3-3, but the tie-break loomed inevitable: there, Opelka drew first blood with a nice backhand combination, breaking for a 2-1 lead, but immediately returned the favour with a forehand unforced. Balance reigned until 5-5, when the American played his best defensive point, saving a feeble smash and making Carreno miss another volley – he was 1/6 at the net. What happened next made the allegiances of tennis deities very clear, as Opelka’s forehand climbed the net and landed a few inches into the other court, giving him the set.
After that turn of events (piling up for Carreno), the second set was perfunctory: the Spaniard looked dispirited just like in Portugal, unable to touch Opelka’s serve (he made only 4 points on return), and could have been broken immediately, narrowly saving himself but capitulating in the fifth game. From there on, the American cruised, and sealed the deal with a forehand in the open court after an hour and 25 minutes. He will now face Dominic Thiem (Tennis TV’s broadcasters jokingly wondered whether the Austrian will return Opelka’s serve from outside the stadium), in a match that sees him as the underdog, but if he’ll be able to hold his serve, he might look to win it on a few key points, perhaps with one more friendly net to aid him.
Tiafoe (USA, 37) d. N. Basilashvili (Geo, 17) 6-7 (8) 6-3 6-4
Much could be expected from these two men, and sure enough, they didn’t disappoint, thrilling an engaged audience.
The unsmiling Basilashvili, seeded 14th in Madrid, is one of the least compromising players on tour, capable of hitting the lights out off both sides for a few games, before failing to bag even the most approachable shot – as a matter of fact, end-of stats are useless to evaluate his performances: during the same set he’ll hit winners for everywhere for a while before falling into a spleen, so the final totals won’t really reflect his play. Last year he made it as a relatively unknown to the top 20, thanks to 2 500 wins, in Hamburg and in Beijing, where he beat a debilitated Del Potro. In 2019, he hasn’t been performing at the same level thus far, but while such a dangerous playing style will probably never give him much continuity (former player Diego Nargiso highlighted the instability of his forehand, where he tends to rotate the right hip a little too early, hitting frontally and easily losing control), but still makes him a fearsome opponent on his best day.
Tiafoe is also an exciting shot-maker, although he’s been polishing his tactics lately, possessing as he does an outstanding motor. He has also been improving what can be called utterly personal grips and motions, fixing a very elaborate serve preparation – his forehand is still pretty unfathomable, albeit effective, with his forearm taking a 180 degrees turn and no lifting of the racket’s head, de facto depriving himself of down-the-line shots. While last year he tended to perform better in smaller tournaments (reaching 2 250 finals, winning in Delray Beach), this season he has been pretty poor in those, but has achieved some major breakthroughs in Melbourne and Miami, reaching the quarter-finals in both tournaments.
The match provided much pathos, especially in the first set, in which both hit very aggressively off the return, especially the Georgian, who tried to force every shot, and initially surprised the young African-American, who was initially surprised when his serves came back with interests, and countered by taking the pace off the ball with the slice, making his opponent pile up unforced errors and breaking in the seventh game. Basilashvili responded in the only way he knows, by hitting even harder, and, after having saved a set point on his serve, managed to break back with a forehand passing shot down the line and another devastating inside-out. The proceedings then ended with a tie-break, but after two more set-points for the American, Basilashvili once again overpowered him to take the set home, despite having a worse winners/unforced ratio and a much worse second serve performance (44% vs 63%).
The second set begin under the same star, with Basilashvili taking a 3-1 lead, but then he completely lost his cross forehand and the first serve (33%), and started committing tons of double-faults, a recurring problem with him, finishing with 10. Moreover, the Tiafoe smartly stopped trying to power his serve, often kicking it out wide to Basilashvili’s backhand, preventing his lightning returns and getting the percentages up, and relieved some of the pressure off of the earlier forehand arm-wrestling by hitting loopier shots in cross, winning 5 games in a row and taking the contest into a decider.
Basilashvili had no gas left in the tank, losing his serve in the fifth game and managing to create problem’s on Tiafoe’s serve only 4-3 down but never going to break-point. The American started gunning again with his first serve, and closed the match emphatically with 3 aces in a row after exactly 2 hours of fight. He will now face Philipp Kohlschreiber, who is 15 years older than him and will be a very different type of test in terms of shot types, but can look ahead to further climbing the ranks.
Fritz (USA, 57, Q) d. G. Dimitrov (Bul, 46) 7-6 (8) 7-6 (4)
Grigor Dimitrov has a special talent that not many possess: that of losing matches in which he plays much better than his opponent (I bet that everyone else can do without), just as he did today, losing against American Taylor Fritz in an hour and 47 minutes, as his morale and ranking keep plummeting.
The two are somewhat symmetrical: Dimitrov has an unlimited potential on clay, given his versatility, athleticism, and power, but has never actually made any actual strides on the surface (aside from last year’s semi-final in Monte-Carlo), whereas Fritz isn’t considered a natural a natural clay-courter, being a typical American relying on serve and forehand, but is actually a junior French Open champion, and this season he is playing every week to try and figure out the surface, and the results, while not Nadalesque, are promising thus far.
The match was very vibrant and enjoyable, as can be expected from two attacking players. Dimitrov took an early lead, and was a lot more aggressive than usual with his one-hander, slicing very little, and this might be a good idea, as the greater leverage of the one-hander allows for more weight and spin on clay, as demonstrated by the several one-handers doing well on clay in the last few years. However, Fritz broke back in the seventh game, taking the set into a tie-break. Here the serve-heavy pattern was subverted, with many mini-breaks, before Fritz managed to break the impasse, winning with a 10-8 score.
The son of former top 10 player Kathy May used the momentum to go up 4-1 in the second, but Dimitrov fought his way back, before committing tennistic suicide in the tie-break by missing a pointless drop shot and a slice to go down 5-2, before conceding with a long backhand for the definitive 7-4.
Fritz will now face world number 1 Nole Djokovic, who destroyed him 6-3, 6-0 in Monte-Carlo a few weeks ago without breaking a sweat. The American will be hoping that Madrid’s faster conditions will favour his serve-dependent game, maybe not in order to win, but at least to try and make life more difficult for an opponent who’s already not in an outstanding period of form.
Monfils (Fra, 18) d. A. Seppi (Ita, 67) 6-3 6-1
This one looked open and shut, and indeed open and shut it was, winning the award for slaughter of the day. Monfils has looked like his top 10 self whenever he’s played this season, winning in Rotterdam and pushing Tsitsipas to the limit in Dubai, before the customary injury issues ruled him out of the Sunshine Double and postponed the beginning of his spring campaign. On the other hand, Seppi, a master of clean strikes, can still be a tough opponent on faster surfaces, but is almost completely at the mercy of his loopier foes on clay, as proven by his fast demise in Munich last week against fellow octogenarian Kohlschreiber.
A cynical man might say that at least it was a quick death, lasting only 55 minutes, with the French’s domination best exemplified by his 100% winning percentage on his second serve. Monfils will face a tougher opponent in the sixteenth of finals, may it be either David Goffin of Marton Fucsovics.
Djere (Ser, 32) d. D. Lajovic (Ser, 24) 6-4 6-4
The Serbian derby was surprisingly uninteresting, despite both players having reached their best career results on clay in the last 3 months, Djere winning in Rio, and Lajovic reaching the final in Monte-Carlo. It would appear that the one-hander still hasn’t stopped celebrating the unexpected result, which catapulted him in the top 25, and has since lost the 2 matches he has taken part in, at the Estoril against Mayer, and today. Djere was clinical with his first serve, winning 78% of the points on his first serve, and only conceded 2 break points.
Djere will now face Prodigal Son Del Potro, who debuted today with a doubles win partnering Nishikori, and might have a chance, since it will be only fourth match of the year for the Tower of Tandil, and the first on clay.
Gasquet (Fra, 39) A. Davidovich Fokina (Spa, 127, WC)
One of the most mysterious showdowns of the day was slated for the evening: Richard Gasquet, former enfant prodige now in his twilight years, was set for his very 2019 debut, having dealt for months with a groin injury, whereas his opponent, the walking melting pot Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, showed himself to the world last week with his semi-final run as a qualifier at the Estoril tournament, dazzling with pinpoint dropshots and fearless solutions before flying to Madrid thanks to a wildcard.
The match was quite close (Gasquet had only two more total points), with both players looking a little tired at times, one for the residual fatigue of last week, the other for not having played in 6 months – and, to be honest, for not being exactly fit. It came down to the greater experience of the Frenchman, who still posses one of the heaviest backhands on tour: the youngster broke in the third game, before losing three games in a row and almost going down 5-2 before coming back to equalise at 4. Then Gasquet managed to solve the conundrum, closing 7-5.
The second set, on the other hand, never deviated from the plot, until, on 6-6, 5-5 in the tie-break, Davidovich’s lob landed just long, handing a match-point to Gasquet, who forced the error with a forehand approaching cross. This means that he will now be part of another comeback, slightly more anticipated, becoming Roger Federer’s first clay opponent in 3 years, a fitting segue for a man once considered a potential competitor, or even heir, for the Swiss.
Kohlschreiber (Ger, 50) d. M. Kukushkin (Kaz, 40) 6-2 7-6 (5)
The German veteran, who has played 12 of his 18 career finals on clay, came into the match with a worse ranking than his opponent, but hardly as the underdog in this polysyllabic encounter. Kukushkin is arguably having his finest season to date, reaching the final in Marseille, but his tennis, which feeds off the speed of his opponent’s strokes and lives of clean impacts, is hardly suited for clay, whereas Kohlschreiber is adept at creating heavy top-spins with both his groundstrokes, especially with the one-hander, and is a master of the drop shot.
Predictably, the German took the first set in a heartbeat, but was then locked into a tighter battle, losing his serve for the first time and having to come back from a 4-1 deficit, winning 6 of the 7 final points. Despite having to work a little more than he probably should have, Kohlschreiber was the better of the contestants in almost every category and will now face Frances Tiafoe for a spot in the third round.
Verdasco (Spa, 38) d. R. Albot (Mol, 44) 6-2 3-6 6-1
The last match of the day featured a battle of styles between solid grinder Radu Albot and reckless power baseliner Fernando Verdasco, whose left-handed forehand rivals Nadal’s in terms of power and spin, but with not much of a safety net, or tactical awareness.
Verdasco predictably took the initiative, and offered a good performance, despite a disastrous ratio of -18 with his backhand, played with fully distended arms and thus prone to errors. To his credit, Albot strenuously resisted, despite only winning 50% of points on his first serve, and exploited every chance that presented itself on his path, but couldn’t touch Verdasco’s serve in the decider, ultimately losing with a harsh score after 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Verdasco is now up for a pure arm-wrestling match against Karen Khachanov, a fascinating encounter in which the spin of his forehand might be undone by the height of his opponent.