Category Archives: Madrid

How Does the Blue Clay Play?

If someone told you about an event where Rafael Nadal crashed out to a non-contender, Milos Raonic made a statement, and the final pitted Tomas Berdych against Roger Federer, you’d be forgiven for assuming the event was played on a very fast court. All of those things happened last week in Madrid on a surface that has at least some things in common with clay.

Given the tournament results, it’s no surprise to discover that statistically, the Madrid courts didn’t play like the old-fashioned red stuff. The stats from this year’s event at Caja Majica are a significant departure from those in past years, and suggest that the blue clay resembles a hard court more than it does European dirt.

Let’s start with aces. Aces are the stat most affected by surface, given the small difference in serve speed and bounce trajectory that can turn a returnable offering into an unreachable one. Of the 29 ATP tournaments played so far this year, Madrid ranks 10th in ace percentage after making adjustments for the players in the field and how many matches each one played. In fact, taking these adjustments into account, the ace rate in Madrid was almost indistinguishable from that of the indoor San Jose tourney!

(For a bit more background on methodology and more tourney-by-tourney comparison, see this article from last September.)

This is a huge departure for Madrid. The tournament has always had a reputation for playing a bit fast, given the altitude compared to Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, and Paris, but that has long been a minor difference, at least when it comes to ace counts. In 2011, Madrid’s ace rate ranked 22nd of the season’s first 29 events, just ahead of Acupulco and behind Munich, Casablanca, and Santiago. 2010 was almost exactly the same, with Madrid coming in 23rd of these 29 events.

Another way of estimating court speed is by looking at the percentage of points won by the server. Even on points where the returner gets the ball back in play, a fast court should generate weaker returns and more third-shot winners. In this department, Madrid once again ranks among this year’s faster events. As in ace rate, it is #10 of 29 on the list, just behind San Jose and ahead of the hard court events in Chennai, Auckland, and Brisbane.

I can’t say whether it’s right or wrong to have a Masters-level event on an unusual surface, but I can say, based on these numbers, that the blue clay hardly plays like clay at all.

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Thursday Topspin: Tiebreak Madness Redux

Lopez threatens: In one of the best matches of the season so far, Roger Federer snuck past Feliciano Lopez 7-6(13), 6-7(1), 7-6(7).  It’s a shame there had to be a loser: given Lopez’s form right now, he’s no doubt better than many of the 16 players who remain in the draw.

The last time Federer played a three-tiebreak match was in November against Gael Monfils; he lost that one.  To find the last such match he won, we have to go back to Halle in 2006, when he beat Olivier Rochus after dropping a first-set breaker.  Whatever the weaknesses in Roger’s game, it’s tough to bet against him in a tiebreak, especially against another player with a serve-focused game.  He’s now 8-2 in tiebreaks this year, a percentage second only to Stanislas Wawrinka (really!) among guys who have played that many breakers.

Ending the madness: The Federer-Lopez was unusual yesterday; there were only two tiebreaks in all the other men’s singles matches combined.  With the exception of Jurgen Melzer, the other seeds coasted through, with both Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro (a seed in all but name and favorable draw) dropping a bagel on their opponent.

Melzer wasn’t so lucky, losing in straight sets to Daniel Gimeno-Traver.  DGT has been the surprise of the event, coming in with a 2-12 record this year in ATP main draw matches.  He qualified by beating a credible opponent in Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, then bumped Richard Gasquet in the first round.  He needed only two sets to beat Melzer, returning so well that the Austrian failed to win even half of his service points.

On the basis of his showing this week, Gimeno-Traver should rise to a new career high of at least #52, and he might not be done yet.  Later today, he faces Michael Llodra for a spot in the quarterfinals and a probable match against Rafael Nadal.

Today: On the Madrid schedule, we have the entire round of 16.  For the first time in the clay season, Nadal is not the most heavily favored player–the oddsmakers give him “only” an 85% chance of defeating del Potro.  If the betting odds are to be believed, Federer, Novak Djokovic, and David Ferrer are have a 90% chance or better of reaching the quarterfinals.

In fact, only two of the eight matches qualify for potential blockbuster status.  The first, of course, is Nadal-Delpo; the other is Robin Soderling vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  It’s odd to see Tsonga without a seed next to his name; in the draw, he’s taken the place of Nicholas Almagro, the man he beat in the first round.  He’s healthy, and while he’s appeared rusty the last couple of times I’ve seen him, the 6-1, 6-3 defeat of Almagro suggests the rust is coming off.  Soderling has been far from unbeatable lately as well, so this one could go either way.

A few challenger notes: In Prague, Fernando Gonzalez has won the first set over Jeremy Chardy, a step toward what would be a solid win for the Chilean’s comeback.  Also, Alex Bogomolov, the only American in the tournament, has reached the quarters after wins against Adam Kellner (last week’s finalist in Ostrava) and Jesse Huta Galung.  That should give Bogie another career-high ranking of at least #89.

The rest of the Americans are in Savannah, where both Wayne Odesnik and Denis Kudla have scored first-round upsets this week.  Odesnik, who qualified, knocked out sixth-seed Marinko Matosevic, while Kudla beat fifth-seed Izak van der Merwe.  This swing of U.S. challengers makes a good opportunity for Odesnik to rocket in the rankings, as these events are played on clay.  He might be the only man in the draw who prefers it that way.

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Wednesday Topspin: The Incredible Tumbling Spaniard

Past his prime? It has been a dreadful year for Fernando Verdasco.  He went to Australia ranked #9; now he’s #17.  With the exception of a run to the finals in Estoril last week, he hasn’t won a single match on tour since San Jose in February.  Even last week’s performance was unimpressive–one of his three wins was by retirement over Milos Raonic, and another required three sets over Kevin Anderson.

This year, he’s lost to the likes of Benjamin Becker, Pablo Andujar (on a hard court!), Sam Querrey, and yesterday, Yen-Hsun Lu, which suggests his free fall isn’t over yet.  At least yesterday’s 7-6 7-5 loss was a close one.

Lower standards: I suppose it could be worse for Verdasco–he could be coming back from injury, playing a challenger somewhere.  That’s what both James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez are doing this week.  Blake is charging through the U.S. challenger circuit with two finals in as many weeks, and is into the second round in Savannah.  His ranking this week rose to #109, so another strong effort will set him up to make the Wimbledon cut.

Gonzalez is playing in Prague, where he’ll start his tournament tomorrow against Jaroslav Pospisil.  If he wins, he’ll face top seed Jeremy Chardy, which should be an interesting test of Freddy’s fitness at this stage of his comeback.

Tiebreak madness:  A day after John Isner defeated Mardy Fish in a third-set tiebreak, the tables were turned.  Sergiy Stakhovsky came up with a clutch performance to down Isner in yet another third-set breaker.  The Ukrainian was just a little better in every category, winning 72% of service points and 32% of return points to Isner’s 68% and 28%.

Speaking of breakers, Rick Devereaux took a look at tiebreak winning percentage with a leaderboard.  He hints at a question that may prove difficult to solve: Are great players successful because they can perform in the clutch and win tiebreaks, or do they win tiebreaks simply because they are better than their opponents?

Faceoffs: Despite the early losses of Verdasco, Nicholas Almagro, and Gael Monfils, the Madrid draw is set to generate some big-time matchups.  An early highlight will be a round-of-16 contest between Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro, assuming both get that far.  Delpo, for his part, must defeat Marin Cilic today.

A thriller could come even sooner in the other half of the draw, with a second-rounder on today’s schedule between Gilles Simon and Andy Murray.  Simon won a squeaker against Ivan Ljubicic yesterday, and showed the skills to threaten Murray in Monte Carlo before suffering an injury.

Also interesting is the potential of the bottommost quarter.  As I write, Novak Djokovic is working his way past Anderson; next he’ll push aside Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.   But his projected quarterfinal opponent is a different story.  David Ferrer has been the second-best player on clay this year, and that match should be an early test of whether Djokovic can be a major factor on clay this year.

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Tuesday Topspin: Catching Up

Rankings report: It’s a fascinating time of the year in the rankings, as the French Open approaches and the value of a ranking in the top 32 (or 34 or 35, depending on injuries) rises.  As I wrote in February, a seed increases a player’s chances of advancing further in the tournament.  The benefit is most marked in the 30-35 range, where #32 won’t have to face another seed until the third round, while #35 could draw Rafael Nadal in the first round.

By winning in Estoril and Munich, respectively, both Juan Martin del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko bounced back into the top 32–Davydenko up 12 places to #28, and Delpo up 14 to #32.  Florian Mayer, the other finalist in Munich, also moved up from #35 to #30 on last week’s result.

Another big gainer was James Blake, up 40 spots to #109 on the strength of his title in Sarasota.  The losing finalist at that tournament, Alex Bogomolov, rose to #91, his career high.  Also marking a career best is Benoit Paire, who reached the semifinal in Ostrava, good enough to get him to #99, his first time in the top 100.

Big losers include Fernando Verdasco, down yet another two spots to #17, and Ernests Gulbis, who fell a whopping 31 places down to #64.  At the rate he’s going, he’ll have to qualify for Masters 1000 events this summer.

Pobrecitos: Every year, I go into the clay court season knowing it will be bad for Americans, yet every year, the top Americans manage to disappoint.  Andy Roddick may have reached a new low, losing to qualifer Flavio Cipolla.  I love Cipolla, but I root for him with full knowledge of his limitations, and those limitations should include an inability to beat Roddick.  Yet the Italian came through a very tight match, breaking four times to Andy’s two.

In the second round, Cipolla will face Michael Llodra, who had a much easier time dispatching his American opponent, allowing Sam Querrey only five games.  Querrey won only 51% of his service points, a disappointing number regardless of surface.  The only American in the second round is John Isner, who served his way past Mardy Fish.

Matches to watch: The first round isn’t quite over,  and the remaining matches include many blockbusters.  On the card for tomorrow:

  • del Potro vs Mikhail Youhzny.  The Russian hasn’t shown much in months, while Delpo sent the rest of the field a message with his 6-2 6-2 drubbing of Verdasco in the Estoril final.
  • Milos Raonic vs Feliciano Lopez.  Lopez is playing well, challenging Novak Djokovic in the Belgrade final and reaching the quarters in Barcelona.  Assuming Raonic’s back holds up, his recent results suggest he should make this match a close one.  They’ll play each other in doubles, as well, Raonic with Nicholas Almagro, and Lopez with Verdasco.
  • Kevin Anderson vs Olivier Rochus. If nothing else, it should be entertaining to watch Rochus threaten a guy more than a foot taller than he is.  The winner gets Djokovic
  • Guillermo Garcia-Lopez vs Thiemo de Bakker.  This second-rounder features two guys who weren’t favored to get there.  GGL beat 14th seed Stanislas Wawrinka (who is having an awful clay season), while de Bakker won a three-setter over Juan Carlos Ferrero.  Both guys are capable of playing at a top-20 level, and both have already recorded solid victories this week.
Two’s are wild: There are some great, bizarre doubles pairings this week.  Roddick played with Mark Knowles, becoming one of the first doubles losers of the tournament on Sunday.  Fish and Delpo are teaming up; they’ll face the equally star-studded team of Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  It isn’t quite the doubles fiesta of Indian Wells, but we’ll get to see plenty of top singles players out of their comfort zones.

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