The qualifiers draw for the Mutua Madrid Open is taking place today at 5:30 pm, meaning that the action is about to go full-on in the Spanish capital. Tennis Threads previews what to expect from the next instalment in the clay season.
The Madrid Open has always occupied a unique place among the Masters 1000 tournaments: after starting as part of the late-season European indoor swing in 2002, it was converted to red clay in 2009, supplanting the demoted Hamburg Open. Since then, the tournament has seen many memorable moments, like the 4-hour marathon between Nadal and Djokovic in the semi-finals in 2009.
The tournament has particularly been at the forefront for innovation, behind the propulsive ethos of Romanian former player-turned-billionaire Ion Tiriac, who has always pushed for ways to bring a cutting-edge drive to the event, at times with mixed fortunes (hello, 2012 blue clay), but ultimately managing to turn it into a very successful and profitable spectacle with a €7.3 million prize money. As a matter of fact, last year’s Open saw a record-breaking attendance of over 270,000 spectators, a 50% increase on the first edition a decade ago, and the number appears to be about to be exceeded in 2019. The tournament’s website is specifically keen to boast the advanced technological features of the Open, from a futuristic structure, La Caja Magica, with three courts with retractable roofs (only the Australian Open have as many), to MatchBot, the first web assistant in tennis, providing information and live statistics on the tournament’s website – despite the English moniker, it communicates solely in Spanish, but it still a very useful tool.
Along with this super-structural carousel, what happens on the courts is obviously more exciting, and this year’s event promises to be the most pregnant yet, themes-wise. Here are some of the key features to look out for:
Can Rafa bounce back?…
Spring hasn’t brought the usual Nadal dictatorship on the dirt, euphemistically speaking. Manacor’s finest has lost in the semi-finals in two of his customary feuds, to Fognini in Monte-Carlo, and to Thiem in Barcelona (as far as bad omens go, it’s not good to lose in a stadium named after you, as the Catalan court is), and has struggled in a few other matches, looking a little shaky with his trademark loopy southpaw blade of a forehand, probably due to some lingering issues in his left knee, which forced to retire before the Indian Wells semi-final against Roger Federer.
As always, there are some bright-sides for the Spaniards as well as some potential drawbacks. Nadal actually has scored more points this season (2,145 v 1,860), and has lost to two great clay specialists who have proven to be able to vanquish him in the past – Fognini has 3 wins against him on clay, whereas Thiem has 4 now – so it would be unwise to say the least to cross him out as the main contender for any clay court tournament, possibly in the whole Milky Way.
However, Madrid might be the least suited tournament to Nadal’s decathlon-fuelled talents, as shown by his “meagre” loot of just 4 wins in 10 clay-court editions. This is quite explainable for two different reasons: first off, Nadal’s spring arc of form usually entails a perfect start and an occasional defeat either in Madrid or Rome, with the Spanish capital a little more likely to witness a Rafa’s defeat.
The reason for this higher probability is technical: in the last few years, the paradigm of clay grinders and faster-surfaces offensive players has been almost inverted to its complete opposite, thanks to the evolutions in fitness and racket technology. The slower surface is now mostly presided by well-conditioned attacking towers who like to stand far from the baseline and swing generously to hit in the hardest possible manner, following in the footsteps of Swedish desaparecido Robin Soderling, who reached two French Open finals playing this way. Some examples include Thiem, Zverev, and Stan Wawrinka, and even Nadal himself has become more aggressive as of late, especially on the backhand side. These new zeitgeist is exacerbated by Madrid’s particular condition, since the city’s geographical collocation, quite distant from the sea and about 2,000 feet in altitude, make for faster and higher-bouncing strokes, allowing an even more aggressive play, as proven by the presence of 4 such specimens in last year’s semi-finals – eventual champion Zverev was joined by Thiem, Kevin Anderson, and clay rookie Denis Shapovalov.
So, Madrid could present Nadal with an even harder challenge to retain his dominance, but his eyes can be expected to be set on the biggest (French) prize, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him gradually raise his level and reach his familiar juggernaut-status in the next couple weeks.
…And can Thiem keep up?
Many players could benefit from a more open field, as world number 1 Novak Djokovic and defending champion Sascha Zverev will try to bounce back after a difficult period, while new Monte-Carlo champion Fabio Fognini will be attempting to build on his first title at this level. However, if Nadal isn’t resembling his impenetrable self, Dominic Thiem is the likeliest bet to supplant him as the new king of clay. His victory last week in Catalunya was nothing short of impressive, capped off with a 12 games to 1 run against Medvedev in the final act, and a lighter schedule more befitting of a top 5 player is seemingly paying its dividends – he is also now relieved of the albatross of having never won a masters 1000 after his somewhat surprising comeback against Federer in Indian Wells.
His level of fitness is looking worthy of the ordeal that the Roland Garros usually is, and his two finals in Madrid are a testament to his good feeling for the event, like Charles V reborn. Apart from his customary full-swing power, for the first time his tactical approach has shown promising signs, with an improved and well-disguised dropshot to go along with his usual top-notch kick serve, both essential to the clay game. However, the Dominator has a history of discontinuity, given the physical demands of his game, based on inside-out forehands hit within an inch of the lines, which can give rise to high counts of unforced errors, and could therefore succumb to lesser players on a bad day, especially in the best-out-of-three setting. Anyway, the change of the guard has never looked as concretely possible as it is now, and it would be a massive surprise not to see him among the last men standing.
Goodbyes and comebacks
Even before it starts, the 2019 Mutua Madrid is all but assured to put some tears in the eyes of long-standing fans, as it will be the last tournament for Spanish champion David Ferrer.
Ferrer, a living monument to perseverance (he is said to be still training at a top-level), turned 37 a month ago, and received a wild card for both the singles and doubles draw. His longevity is staggering: 7 years in the top 10, a best-ranking of number 3 in 2013, 17 Slam quarter-finals (with a French Open final in 2013), 7 Masters 1000 finals (with a win in Bercy in 2012), and 52 career finals with 27 total tournament crowns, all with a game almost devoid of powerful weapons and therefore of quickly resolved points. Hopefully, when this chapter in men’s tennis history will be written, his name will be mentioned as one of the main challengers to the reign of the Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer, despite almost always coming up short, much like fellow oldies Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Moreover, fellow veteran Feliciano Lopez, who’s the Tournament Director in Madrid despite being still in activity, hasn’t made his retirement plans clear yet, but it seems quite likely that he will eventually bow out at this event.
Speaking of Federer, this tournament will mark his first clay event in three years, after a careful load-management in 2017 and 2018. The Swiss legend appears to have decided for a more active schedule this season, reportedly to be at the top of his form for the grass season. However, his record on clay is still unbelievable, albeit not as much as on the other surfaces, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if he pulled off at least one deep run, especially with a few quick wins in the early rounds, and his Father Time-defeating fitness in the Sunshine Double foreshadows the usual commitment to the sport.
The other long-awaited return will be that of Juan Martin Del Potro, whose calvary seems to be ending. After narrowly avoiding arthroscopic surgery on the knee he injured in Shanghai in October, the Argentinian Maciste has been training in Madrid for a few days, and appears ready to compete. If karma were actually a thing, he should probably win every tournament from now on to his grave, as his resilience in the face of adversity is probably unprecedented in the history of tennis, but he would surely settle for a little less, although his top 4 run at last year’s French Open might put him in a good position for success in 2019 as well.
Tennis is European
The trend of the last 15 years has shown an increasing prevalence of European players at the top of the game’s pyramid, with only a handful of outsiders breaking through, such as Del Potro, Anderson, and Nishikori, as demonstrated by the subdivision of the Laver Cup teams, which pits Europe against the rest of the world. This tendency, completely at odds with the classic tradition of a mainly American and Australian game dating back to the 1950s, seems even more pronounced during the clay season: Montecarlo is traditionally eschewed by American athletes, and Madrid will likewise have no Anderson, no Isner, and no Raonic.
They are all dealing with injuries, but at the same time they are not players particularly enamoured of a surface on which the serve can only take you so far, so that the only non-European top player who actually plays the whole clay season is Kei Nishikori, whose court coverage and return game make him the only one with a chance to contend for the most important trophies – while he has never won a Master 1000 title, in 2014 he had to retire during the Madrid against Nadal after dominating the first set, and his form has been good in Barcelona, after the struggles of the previous weeks. However, the last non-European Slam winner was Del Potro in 2009, and this is unlikely to change in Paris.
A test for the Davis Cup
As widely known, the Davis Cup has been controversially reformed as a week-long event for the top 18 national teams in the world, and the first edition with the new format will be played at La Caja Magica in November, since the president of new controlling group Kosmos Holding is Spanish footballer Gerard Pique. While many players have harshly criticised the changes to the event, most notably Federer and Zverev, the competition seems to be set, with Indian Wells CEO Larry Ellison joining the enterprise to provide even more financial backing, which is reported to be of $3 billion for the next 25 years. Therefore, this year’s Mutua Madrid Open will be an important test to gauge the interest of the public, and perhaps even to rekindle that of top players, whose absence could sink the new Davis Cup even before it starts.
All of this adds further fuel to a week that promises to be momentous inside and outside of the court, and therefore unmissable for all fans.