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Steve Flink: Federer Rules on Controversial Blue Clay

5/14/2012 7:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Everyone in the world of tennis eagerly anticipated the Mutua Madrid Open this past week because the tournament shifted dramatically from red to blue clay. All of the leading players—save Andy Murray—were in in Spain for this Masters 1000 event. The game’s closest followers were deeply immersed in the proceedings as the top competitors moved closer to the ultimate clay court tournament of them all at Roland Garros a couple of weeks from now.

In the end, it was a gripping tournament for many reasons. The blue clay looked terrific on our television screens. Following the ball during rallies was decidedly easier and better for tennis fans everywhere. The rich shade of blue came across beautifully for those sitting at home in their living rooms, and I am sure those who were there in Madrid found the color and even the novelty of blue clay to be remarkably appealing as well. And yet, despite the aesthetic value of the color change, the fans and the players were cheated to a large degree because all week long the players were compromised by the conditions. The courts were entirely too slippery. Whenever a player was forced out wide by his opponent, recovering and getting back into position was an impossible task.

From the outset, the two most vocal critics among the competitors were none other than Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. They were outraged by the state of the courts, infuriated by the abysmal footing, and uninhibited in their disapproval. Nadal was ousted for the first time in fourteen career appointments with compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the round of 16, and Djokovic was knocked out in the quarterfinals by his countryman Janko Tipsarevic. They vowed not to return next year unless the Madrid tournament goes back to traditional red clay. Djokovic had approached the event with an open mind, but after struggling through an arduous and uneven three set contest with Daniel Gimeno-Traver in his first match, the Serbian made it unmistakably clear that he found the clay unacceptably poor and even treacherous. Nadal had also made his feelings known well before he lost to Verdasco. Perhaps both players talked themselves into their defeats with their extreme negativity about the courts, but they are two unassailable professionals and their complaints were more than justified.

Meanwhile, Roger Federer quietly went about his business, spoke less critically about the blue clay without endorsing it, and in the end collected his fourth singles championship of 2012 and his second triumph at the Masters 1000 level this season. By virtue of his final round victory over Tomas Berdych, Federer moved past Nadal to No. 2 in the world, a status he has not attained since March of 2011. Federer was the calm man amidst the storm of protests, escaping from a precarious start and a dangerous ending to win his seventh tournament since his loss to Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2011 U.S. Open. No wonder he stands now as the second ranked player in the world. It is no accident that he is closing in on Djokovic for the No. 1 ranking. He has, after all, captured 45 of his last 48 matches, and seven of his last ten tournaments. Those numbers speak volumes about Federer’s extraordinary consistency across the last eight months.

His final round clash with Berdych in Madrid was fascinating from the outset to the very end. The tennis was largely first rate from both players. It was an unpredictably gripping skirmish, filled with shifts in momentum, sparkling with vitality, featuring the verve and tactical acuity of Federer and the admirably clean, precise and potent shot making of Berdych. Federer came through narrowly and deservedly in the end, claiming a 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 triumph. But the win was tougher and more complicated than even the score suggests. Not until the last ball was struck in this crackling encounter was the outcome clear. Even the blue court was less hazardous than had been the case most of the week as the grounds crew made frequent visits to sweep and water the court and keep it manageable. As the week progressed, the attendants were more and more willing to sweep and water the courts, whenever necessary. That was a step in the right direction—much too late to assuage Nadal and Djokovic, but a hopeful sign that next year things could be different in Madrid.

In any case, it was Berdych who came out of the blocks blasting the ball with unrelenting consistency, depth and accuracy. He hardly missed a ball in the entire opening set. His ground game was devastatingly precise and powerful, and his second serve was bounding so high that Federer could seldom cope with the heavy kick. The Swiss was handcuffed time and again on his returns, and rushed out of too many rallies by the velocity of Berdych’s shots off both wings. Moreover, Berdych was clipping his returns with brute force and uncanny timing. There was never really a chance for Federer in that first set.

Here is how it unfolded. Berdych held from 15-30 in the opening game of the match, sweeping three points in a row, holding with an ace down the T. With Federer serving in the second game, Berdych exploded with a backhand down the line winner and a forehand return winner for 0-30. Two aces carried Federer back to 30-30, but Federer wasted the next point with a surprising lapse in judgment. Berdych’s return was a sitter, and the Swiss should have punished it with one of his trademark aggressive forehands. Instead, Federer tried a casual forehand sliced approach, and sent that shot into the net. He had needlessly put himself down break point, and Berdych fully exploited the moment. His scorching backhand return whistled out of Federer’s reach. That blazing winner took Berdych to 2-0, and he held commandingly at love for 3-0 despite missing four first serves in a row.

Berdych had captured 12 of 16 points en route to a comfortable 3-0 lead. In this form—going for broke but giving away nothing, unsettling Federer with his astounding and effortless pace—Berdych was unstoppable. In that first set, he won 20 of 26 points on serve, never faced a break point, and always kept Federer at bay with his uncompromising returns. At 2-5, Federer trailed 15-40, but he collected four points in a row from double set point down to salvage an important hold. All four of those serves were un-returnable. And by making Berdych serve the set out in the ninth game, Federer allowed himself the luxury of serving first in the second set. Berdych did serve it out, holding at 30 to take the set 6-3 in 36 convincing minutes.

In the opening game of the second set, Federer was stretched to deuce, but he connected with seven of eight first serves and held on for 1-0. Serving at 30-30 in the second game, Berdych displayed a frailty that had not surfaced before. He drove a two-hander wildly over the baseline to give Federer a welcome break point opportunity. The Swiss took it in style, unleashing an inside-out forehand winner to take a 2-0 lead. Federer held at love with four consecutive first serves of varying spins and speeds, and charged to 3-0. At 3-1, the Swiss wasted a 40-15 lead and fell behind break point, but rescued himself commendably there with an ace, and soon moved to 4-1.

Berdych was reeling, but he refused to surrender the set tamely. He served a double fault to fall behind break point in the sixth game, but released a timely ace down the T, and held on. He was still down only one break, but Federer served his way into a 5-2 lead. A third set appeared to be inevitable, but this was not a day for inevitability. Berdych held on easily at 15 for 3-5. Serving for the set in the ninth game, Federer reached 40-30 and stood one point from equality at one set all. But Berdych laced a sizzling forehand passing shot up the line, catching the Swiss slightly off guard. Federer netted a lunging backhand volley. Two points later, Berdych got the break with a terrific return off a fine first serve, some tenacious scrambling, and a point ending forehand down the line winner that was dazzling. Federer harmed himself in that game by missing five out of eight first serves.

Berdych was back on serve at 4-5. He made it to 5-5, but the imperturbable Federer stood his ground admirably. He held at love with four excellent first serves, including an ace. Nevertheless, a tie-break seemed certain. But Federer returned brilliantly in the next game. At 15-30, his bold inside-out forehand return clipped the sideline for a winner. Berdych had no play as that ball skipped off the line. At 15-40, Berdych double faulted into the net. All of his hard work to stay in the set was for naught. Federer had persisted, taking the set 7-5.

The opening game of the final set presented another significant opportunity for an obstinate Berdych. A string of brilliant returns took Berdych to 15-40. Federer saved the first break point, but then Berdych got a good look at a Federer second serve. The 6’5” man from the Czech Republic went for one of his patented backhand down the line returns, and he had Federer beaten cold by that shot. It missed by an inch or two wide. From 15-40, Federer steadfastly held on, winning four points in a row for 1-0. Berdych held for 1-1. In the third game, Berdych moved to break point, but Federer threw in a first serve kicker without much pace. Berdych overcooked his return. Federer held on gamely again for 2-1. Berdych drew level at 2-2, and went back to the drawing board.

Berdych cracked another penetrating forehand return winner to reach 0-30 in the fifth game. For the third service game in a row, he had Federer in dangerous territory. But Federer responded like a champion, acing Berdych to make it 15-30, taking the next three points, holding on at another propitious moment. Federer had travelled to 3-2, but not without considerable effort. Berdych took his serve at 15 to make it 3-3. Until that juncture of the final set, Berdych had been the more self-assured and formidable player. But now Federer raised the stakes decidedly, brought out his best brand of play, and looked to impose himself with purpose and strategic acumen.

Federer held at 15 for 4-3, making every first serve in that game, striking a winning forehand crosscourt on the run, releasing another scintillating forehand down the line into the clear. Three excellent return points from Federer took the Swiss to 0-40 on Berdych’s serve in the eighth game. Federer was right where he wanted to be, leading 4-3, up triple break point, within striking distance of an important triumph. But Berdych aced Federer down the T in the deuce court, aced him out wide in the ad court, and aced him again down the T to laudably reach deuce. With three swings of the racket, Berdych had taken big chances away from Federer. But then the 26-year-old missed another ace attempt down the middle, and double faulted long. He promptly double faulted again on the following point. Three straight soaring aces had been followed by a pair of damaging double faults.

And so Federer served for the match at 5-3. On the first point, his first serve to the backhand was called out, but the ball had actually hit the line. The point was replayed, which was a piece of good fortune for Berdych. He unleashed a bruising forehand return that Federer could not answer. Berdych followed with a forehand passing shot winner struck cleanly down the line. It was 0-30. Federer rallied for 30-30, but Berdych drove a two-hander crosscourt with too much speed and depth. Federer netted a difficult sliced backhand. At break point down, Federer missed his first serve, and Berdych jumped all over the second, going down the line off the backhand. Federer was coaxed into a forehand error.

Berdych had improbably broken back for 4-5. He held easily at 15 for 5-5. But Federer upped the ante again. At 5-5, 40-15, he chased down a backhand down the line from Berdych and laced an elegant forehand crosscourt for a winner. The Swiss had held on confidently for 6-5. Serving to stay in the match, Berdych did not miss a first serve on the first three points, and yet he found himself down 0-40, triple match point. Federer was primed to close out the account on his terms. But, once more, Berdych was not ceding any ground. He used a big first serve to set up a forehand drive volley that Federer could not handle. Then Federer tentatively netted a forehand return. At 30-40, Berdych exploited a short return from Federer, driving an inside out forehand with good depth to pressure Federer into another mistake.

For the second service game in a row, Berdych had recovered from 0-40 to reach deuce. He was two points away from a tie-break, having saved three match points in a row. Berdych was in control of the next point. He had the opening for a point concluding forehand crosscourt, but overanxiously drove it long. At match point for the fourth time, Federer chipped his backhand return low and short to force Berdych to come forward. That tactic had worked sporadically well throughout the match. It worked again. Berdych netted his forehand approach. Federer had prevailed 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 despite failing to serve out the second and third sets. He had succeeded largely on experience and willpower. Berdych had failed because of his penchant for self-inflicted wounds at critical moments. But both men had produced an absorbing and very well played final. It was the most enjoyable tennis of the week.

That Federer was there to step up and claim the title was a tribute to his competitive mettle. He could well have bowed out in his opening match in the second round against Milos Raonic. The 6’5” Canadian had taken the first set off Federer at Indian Wells in March before bowing in a stirring contest. This time around—in the high altitude of Madrid that was so conducive to players who prefer faster clay courts—Raonic was ever so close to turning the tables on the Swiss. Federer had not played a match since late March, when he lost in the round of 16 at Miami to Andy Roddick under the lights. Having won three consecutive tournaments leading up to that event, Federer needed a good month or so away from the game, and that was what he got.

But the long break also meant that he was short of match play. To open against someone as formidable and explosive as Raonic on a dangerously slippery and unusually quick clay court could have been a recipe for disaster from the standpoint of Federer. At 4-4 in the first set, Raonic broke Federer at love as the Swiss missed three out of four first serves. Federer made three costly unprovoked mistakes in that game, including an errant inside-out forehand at 0-40. Raonic served out the set at love. Things looked ominous for Federer at that juncture.

In the opening game of the second set, Federer threw caution to the wind. That game went to five deuces. Raonic had three break points. Federer constantly served-and-volleyed on both first and second deliveries, but he was under extreme pressure. He employed that tactic successfully to a degree, but there was an air of desperation about it as well. A break there might have sealed the match for Raonic. The two players went to 5-5, and Raonic reached break point. If he could have converted, he would have been serving for the match. But Raonic left his second serve return far too short. Federer stepped in and sent a forehand crisply crosscourt. Raonic ran that ball down but netted a forehand he ought to have been able to keep in play. Federer held on for 6-5, and then broke Raonic, closing out that twelfth game with a sparkling inside-out forehand shot winner.

It was one set all, but Raonic was unswerving. At 2-2 in the final set, he earned another break point, but needlessly went for a backhand down the line winner that was simply not in the cards. Federer held on for 3-3. At 3-3, Raonic had Federer perched uncomfortably at 15-40, but Federer danced out of that corner with poise. He served-and-volleyed on a second serve and angled away a dipping return from the Canadian, making a glorious backhand drop volley winner. At 30-40, Federer aced Raonic down the T. An ace lifted Federer to game point, and he held on in another clutch display for 4-3. On they went predictably to a final set tie-break. Federer surged to 4-1, but Raonic remained resolute. He was serving at 4-5, but was overwhelmed by the moment. Federer’s return was short, just inside the service line. Raonic went for his customary inside-out forehand, the shot that had worked so well for him the whole match. But the Canadian missed flagrantly. Then Federer hit a forehand return winner off a second serve. He won 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), taking a contest that featured only one service break for each player.

Thereafter, Federer’s draw opened up completely. He routed Richard Gasquet, took apart David Ferrer (a player who has never beaten him) and cast aside Tipsarevic. Those one-sided triumphs took little out of Federer and left him refreshed and eager for his final round duel with Berdych. It was certainly beneficial to him that both Djokovic and Nadal were removed by other players, but that was not his problem. The odds at the beginning of the week that Federer would meet neither the Serbian nor the Spaniard were very slim.

But Nadal had only himself to blame for his defeat, and the same can essentially be said for Djokovic. Nadal began inauspiciously against Verdasco. Verdasco took the first set before Nadal retaliated to take the second. In the third and final set, Nadal was still performing unevenly and his movement around the court was clearly inhibited. Yet the fact remained that Nadal was two breaks up in the final set, serving at 5-2. He once wasted a two service break lead in the third and final set against Juan Martin Del Potro in Miami three years ago, but I can’t recollect a single other instance where the Spaniard had not closed out a battle from that commanding position.

But this was a rare case of Nadal tightening up so badly that he could not operate with anything like his normal closer’s mentality. At 5-2, 15-0, he missed an overhead from very close range, almost right on top of the net. He somehow sent that smash into the net, which was terribly disconcerting. Nonetheless, he saved a break point and reached deuce, two points away from a triumph. But he made a glaring unforced error off the forehand. Verdasco was fortunate when his next return skipped off the baseline and provoked an error. Verdasco held at 15 with an ace in the following game, but Nadal had a second chance to serve out the match at 5-4.

Nadal seemed frozen and thoroughly devoid of self-conviction. He was broken at love for 5-5 as Vedasco’s deep returns kept Nadal at bay. Verdasco held at 30 for 6-5. He had won four games in a row, and 14 of 16 points in that span. Nadal had all but disappeared. Serving to stay in the match at 5-6, Nadal remained much too passive. He drifted to 15-30, served an ace for 30-30, made another unforced error off the forehand for 30-40, but saved a match point with his second clutch ace of the game. And yet, even this brave stand did not last. Verdasco threw in a clever change of pace shot on the next point and Nadal smothered a forehand apprehensively into the net. Moments later, Verdasco seized victory with a forehand winner on his second match point. A strangely subdued and ineffectual Nadal bowed out inexplicably, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5. By the way, Verdasco was overwhelmed and overpowered in the quarters by Berdych, who granted the Spaniard only three games in two swift sets.

As for Djokovic, he had lifted his game considerably after his dismal match with Gimeno-Traver, producing some impressive tennis in a 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory over Stan Wawrinka. In the opening set against Tipsarevic, Djokovic was hitting the ball well, looking much sharper and more resourceful from the backcourt than his opponent. But he was squandering all kinds of chances to break Tipsarevic. Tipsarevic saved one break point in the second game of the first set, and wiped away three more in the fourth game. They moved on to a tie-break, but Djokovic opened that sequence with a double fault on the first point.  Before he knew it, the world No. 1 was down 4-0. Tipsarevic took that sequence seven points to two, and thereafter Djokovic seemed to lose interest.

Tipsarevic moved to 5-2 in the second set, and Djokovic was serving at 0-40, triple match point down in the eighth game. Djokovic’s survival instincts seemed to kick in then. He delivered consecutive aces, and then made a forehand winner. Djokovic held on for 3-5, and then reached double break point down in the next game. He did not convert, but the favorite garnered one more break point that Tipsarevic wiped away with a masterful body serve. Djokovic lost 7-6 (2), 6-3. There was no sense of urgency in his manner. He was so disillusioned by the slippery blue court that he seemed relieved to be out of the tournament.

The most surprising thing about the uproar in Madrid was the apparent failure of tournament promoter Ion Tiriac and tournament director Manuel Santana to anticipate a serious problem and do something about it. Tiriac is one of the sport’s deepest thinkers, a former player, and a man who knows the sport inside out on every level. He surely realized that the change in the color of the court was enough of an issue on its own, but why did he not make sure that a wide range of leading players tested the court to validate its authenticity? Perhaps there were some world class players who practiced on that court in advance of the tournament and reported back favorably to Tiriac and Santana, but clearly something went sorely amiss.

Tiriac could easily have won the argument over the court’s color on the justifiable grounds that the players need to accept that it was much better for the viewers at home who watched on television. But Tiriac, Santana and company somehow did not find a way to reduce the slipperiness and make it more manageable for the players. I did sense that the slickness problem was not as large in the final, when conditions seemed truer and fairer for both finalists. But a good idea went badly awry, and Tiriac and his colleagues are going to have a monumental problem convincing two of the game’s most influential players—men named Nadal and Djokovic—to come back to Madrid next year and give it another try.

Meanwhile, the results in Madrid have set up a stirring week in Rome. Djokovic is priming for Roland Garros but needs a big week in Rome. Nadal will try to put his fiasco against Verdasco behind him, and hopes to rebuild the confidence he had developed with his clay court tournament wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. As for Roger Federer, he doesn’t have much to worry about at the moment. All he needs out of Rome is a couple of matches as he looks ahead to Roland Garros. In Madrid, Federer took advantage of the fast conditions and performed admirably. The courts in Italy will be significantly slower. The guess here is that Nadal in Rome is going to look a lot more like Nadal than he ever did in Madrid. That spells trouble for everyone else in the field.