The Curious Case of the Madrid Open

Madrid Open

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The Madrid Open is a curious member of the ATP 1000 circuit. A low speed surface that plays faster than your average clay court event, the only Clay ATP 1000 all the Big Four have won, and a red clay event once controversially decked out in blue. The Tennis Review looks at the curious case of the Madrid Open.

The Clay plays faster than your average clay court event.

Madrid’s altitude of 667 m (Rome and Monte Carlo are 21 m) means that the balls fly through the air quicker than at other big Clay court events taking away the advantage traditional clay courters have on the surface namely their ability to keep their more attacking minded opponents back behind the baseline, manoeuvre them with heavy top spin to open the court for a winner, force an error or surprise them with a drop shot.

Instead, the Madrid conditions give the edge to proficient clay courters with a more aggressive mind set. (The Madrid Open also favored attacking players in its previous incarnation as an ATP 1000 event held indoors in the latter part of the season.) The ATP revealed the average speeds of its courts last season and Madrid’s main court had a rating of 20.9, -1.6 on the previous year, making Madrid’s main court both, on average, the slowest speed surface of all the ATP 1000s and the closest in speed rating to Roland Garros’s main court average (21). But, with the high altitude the court surface needs to be that slow to compensateĀ  and it’s that combination of slow clay surface and the ball flying off the racket quickly which make the Madrid Open the curious case it is.

Rafa Nadal, the game’s most dominant clay court player, has been, during his career, at his most vulnerable on the Madrid Clay. Since the event was first held on Clay in May in 2009, Nadal has lost five times there (beaten by Federer in ’09, Djokovic in ’11, Federer and Djokovic both beating him in straight sets, Verdasco in ’12, Nadal holding a 13-0 head to head lead over Verdasco going into that event, and twice by Murray, ’15 and ’16, both losses in straight sets) and won the trophy four times.

Nadal also struggled in the clay court Masters the Madrid Open replaced, Hamburg, winning there just once in his three appearances (2008), often competing in unfavorable damp and heavy conditions, negating his beloved top spin and causing the ball to bounce lower. In Hamburg 2007, Nadal suffered his first ever clay court loss to Roger Federer and then his second in Madrid two years later, the former defeat in three but with Nadal winning just two games in the last two sets and the latter defeat in straight sets. Coincidentally, Federer has never beaten Nadal in Monte Carlo, Rome or Roland Garros.

Compare Nadal’s title haul in Hamburg and Madrid- five in all- to his haul in Monte Carlo (11 titles) or Rome (7).

Nadal should be the favorite to improve those figures where this part of the Clay swing is concerned as he looks set to win the Madrid Open for a sixth time this season as he enters the event on the back of winning Monte Carlo and Barcelona without droppingĀ  a set and playing even more aggressively than usual in order to shorten points.

The Madrid Open is the only Clay ATP 1000 all members of the Big Four have won.

Nadal and Djokovic have both won Monte Carlo and Rome, but the Madrid Open has been won by all members of the Big Four- Nadal (2010, 2013, 2014, 2017), Djokovic (2011, 2016), Federer (2009, 2012) and Murray (2015).

The Big Four have each excelled on clay at various and different stages of their careers andĀ  Madrid’s conditions have played to all their strengths at one time or another- to Federer’s all court game, Murray’s speed, defense and counter-punching, Djokovic’s aggressive defensive baseline game and Nadal’s general clay court skills.

The Madrid Open’s courts were once painted blue.

As if the Madrid Open needed to stand out any more than it did with its faster playing conditions and ultra modern Caja Magica Cauldron of a stadium, in 2012, promoter and no stranger to controversy Ion Tiriac painted the Madrid Clay courts blue.

The decision brought plenty of attention to the tournament, but the change was not welcomed by everyone.

Big names such as Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal complained that the courts were hard to move on, even dangerous, threatening to boycott the event should the courts still be blue the following year and, the color of the courts clouding their moods, exiting an event they had each won in the last two seasons (Nadal ’10, Djokovic ’11) in the last 16 (Nadal lost to Verdasco) and the last eight (Djokovic lost to Tipsarevic).

Roger Federer had no issues with the courts, though. In fact his game looked very fetching in Clay Blue, the Swiss winning the title, defeating Thomas Berdych in the final in three sets.

Blue Clay caused a splash only to sink without trace, but just what would tennis fans give for something out of the blue to happen this Clay Court season?

They might possibly offer the tennis Gods a few digits if not a few limbs. With Nadal yet to drop a set and the field missing its world No.2 and those who are competing either too inexperienced or not healthy enough to really make a mark, we could be in for another victory parade from the world No.1 unless an upset happens to peak our curiosity.

The players faced with the task of beating Nadal? The top seed is expected to play Gael Monfils in round 2, and is scheduled to face Diego Schwartzman (seeded 13-though Pablo Andujar is the most inform player in that section), last year’s runner up Dominic Thiem (5) in the last eight (though Borna Coric or Pablo Carreno Busta could spoil that party), fourth seed Juan Martin del Potro in the last four, and Sascha Zverev (2) in the final, but no one will be too surprised if David Goffin makes it there instead.

None of those players or whoever ends up facing Nadal will be really expected to beat him and even one of them winning a set from him would be enough to peak the curiosity of tennis fans as to how the rest of the Clay season might unfold.

So this is where the clay tennis world has come to- Nadal losing a set as the peak of competitive tennis where the Spaniard is concerned. These are lean times indeed, competition wise, but a Nadal three setter at yet another peak of his Clay court career is a scenario we will gladly take. Let’s just see if the rest of the field can take it to him.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.

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