Best of Three: Madrid controversies cast shadow over notable finish
Roger Federer and Serena Williams powered to titles at the Madrid Open
Madrid controversies puts asterisks next to two great champions' success
A wild past six months had topsy-turvy storylines that make sports appealing
1. Task at hand: Who knew the key to marketing a tennis event was so simple? Change the color of the court surface, make some intemperate remarks, just add water (too much, according to some players) and ... presto, you have an international cause célèbre with media coverage and social media chatter that outstrips the importance of the tournament.
For a French Open tune-up event, the Mutua Madrid Open garnered all sorts of attention last week. And mostly it was on account of the blue clay. Players hated it and weren't shy about complaining. Others didn't mind it and, smartly, kept this to themselves. It was allegedly telegenic. Except when it wasn't. It was allegedly dangerous. Except that was a tough argument to make, given the perilous conditions of the recent Monte Carlo tournament (that went largely unremarked upon). And the reality is that the worst clay court is easier on the body than the best hard court.
Rafael Nadal complained -- as he does with distressing frequency these days -- then lost to countryman Fernando Verdasco and then went fishing (in the deep blue sea.) Novak Djokovic complained, lost to a countryman as well, and then -- giving new zest to the phrase "surface tension" -- vowed not to return to the event until the blue clay turns red.
Because tennis is often incapable as generating storylines that don't have a ring of classical myth ... as the two top guys griped, the No. 3 guy, a fellow named Roger Federer, simply did his job and won the event, achieving the No. 2 ranking in the process.
2. Serena conquers again: There was another "trentagenarian" who simply focused on the task at hand, made necessary adjustments, didn't sweat the color of the court, and won the title. Serena Williams looked like her old worldbeater self last month in Charleston, dominating green clay. Last week, she was comparably formidable on the blue granules. Her run to career title No. 41 included beatdowns worthy of "Shades of Gray" (ba-dump-bump) not least among them a pasting of Maria Sharapova in the semis and then a 6-1, 6-3 dismissal of Victoria Azarenka in the final.
In a matter of weeks, Azarenka has gone from "the Djokovic of 2012" to another WTA No.1 now forced to prove she's no paper tigress or one-Slam wondress. As for Serena, it's same song different verse. When she's healthy, able and willing, she's the best. Regardless of what's underfoot. Some of you love her. Some of you hate her. But how can anyone not marvel at the way in which she (and, for that matter, Federer) has, yet again, turned around some discouraging results and put herself in position to win another Slam?
3. Wild and crazy swing: Let's go macroscopic and consider where this crazy sport has taken us recently. Six weeks ago, the Miami event concluded and there appeared to be some semblance of world order. Djokovic was still riding high, winner of four of the last five majors, inflated with confidence, unassailable, if not unbeatable. Nadal was coming off a California loss to Roger Federer, limping around in South Florida and still hadn't solved the Djokovic riddle since 2010. Federer was in the conversation, but had just lost to Andy Roddick and, as usual faced whispers about his compromised state and advancing age. Azarenka, was a clear-cut WTA No.1 whose only loss of 2012 was a tired defeat to quirky Marion Bartoli. Sharapova looked like a bridesmaid, suddenly unable to show up in the big matches. Serena had just been dismissed by Caroline Wozniacki.
Today? Djokovic suddenly looks beatable, having lost twice, including a smackdown from Nadal. Nadal began his ritual march through clay season, but then lost in Madrid, all the while appearing to be something other than mentally unflappable and singularly focused. Federer claimed still another Masters Series title. Meanwhile, Azarenka backslid on clay (and not because it's slippery), Sharapova won spectacularly one week and lost spectacularly the next. And nine years after her only triumph in Paris, Serena looks the French Open favorite. The glory of Rome and the fall of Pompeii -- all in a month and a half!
Here comes a parade of asterisks: Djokovic was beset by personal tragedy when he lost to Nadal. Federer's title came on a faux surface -- and he didn't have to beat of his rivals to win. Nadal was distracted in Madrid and, though he didn't tank, he wasn't devastated to exit an event he doesn't hold in the highest regard. Serena still hasn't won a major in two years; Sharapova in five. Plus, we should be wary of according too much importance to any results played on blue clay.
Any and all could be solid assertions; any and all could be hollow alibis. And ultimately, who cares? The truth will come out in a few weeks in Paris. We'll see what happens when the (red) dust settles. Meanwhile, these recent twists and EKG-like ups and downs, give us a vivid illustration of what so many enjoy about the sport.