The Reign in Spain: Four Lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Open

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(Please click here to read my preview of the 2016 European clay court men’s tennis season.)

The anomalously high altitude clay tennis tournament in Madrid came to a close on Sunday as Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray 6-2 3-6 6-3 to win the title, garnering his record 29th Masters 1000 crown.

The first set was all Djokovic as the Serbian World #1 delivered nearly flawless tennis and demonstrated that at his best he can send a tennis ball from any stretched position to any location on the court.  In the second set, Murray dug in for a fight.  Raising his aggressive intensity, and taking advantage of a dip in his opponent’s form, Murray broke serve early and held on to win the set.

The final set was nervy and tight, with each player alternating between brilliance and sloppiness and momentum shifting repeatedly.  Djokovic broke serve first but relinquished his advantage a few games later.   By forcing Murray into a defensive mindset, Djokovic broke for a second time but nearly broke himself back as he served for the match.  The 5-3 game was riddled with Djokovic errors.  Murray had at least four chances to break.  I lost count of the number of deuces and wasted match points before Djokovic was finally able to put the match away.

The result of the final set was at least as much about Murray’s suffering a mental block as it was about Djokovic’s exhibiting superior prowess on the court.  Especially in light of the fact that Madrid’s high-altitude courts are faster than the courts in Paris, Djokovic’s tight three-set win is no guarantor of his eventual victory at the French Open.

Four quick lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Masters:

Watch out for Juan Martin del Potro.

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Juan Martin del Potro, the 6’6″, 27-year-old gentle giant from Tandil, Argentina (affectionately known as the Tower of Tandil), has suffered some of the worst injury luck of any player on the tour.  Only months after overpowering Roger Federer in a five-set slugfest to win the 2009 US Open, del Potro suffered a wrist injury that required surgery and forced him to miss most of the 2010 season.  He returned to the tour in 2011, played well enough to win the Olympic bronze medal in 2012, and finished 2013 in the Top 5.  His hopes for additional Grand Slam titles were dashed in early 2014, when he suffered an injury to his other wrist that also required surgery.  Twice in 2014 and 2015 he rehabbed and resumed training only to discover additional wrist problems.  In all, del Potro’s four wrist surgeries have forced him to miss three years of what might otherwise have been his prime.

The Argentine, who is beloved by many fans for his sweet temper, rejoined his tour colleagues in February and played his first clay match since 2013 in Munich last month.

This week in Madrid, del Potro signaled that he could pose a dangerous threat at the French Open.  In a highly anticipated first-round match against rising star Dominic Thiem, del Potro pounded serves, blasted groundstrokes, wrested control of rallies, and overpowered one of year’s most successful clay courters convincingly.  Afterward, Del Potro shed tears of joy and relief.

The rest of the tour would be wise to take note.

Del Potro is unlikely to win the French Open.  His match fitness is not yet sufficient to carry him through seven rounds of best-of-five-set matches later this month in Paris.  However, he could play the role of spoiler.  Del Potro will not be seeded in Roland Garros, so he will be a “dangerous floater” in the draw.  He could meet anyone in the tournament’s first two rounds, when the top players are most vulnerable.  Based upon del Potro’s performance against Thiem, an early meeting between del Potro and a tournament favorite could alter the event’s course significantly.

 

Andy Murray is in excellent form.

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Britain’s Andy Murray, a two-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic gold medalist, never much enjoyed playing on clay.  Having grown up on indoor hard courts in his native Scotland, and having stepped onto a clay court for the first time at age 15, Murray found movement on clay courts alien and uncomfortable and historically enjoyed his weakest results at clay events.

All this changed in 2015.  Murray won his first clay title at an April 250 event in Munich and followed that win with a victory at the Masters 1000 event in Madrid.

At the 2016 Madrid tournament, Murray again looked sharp.  With a beefed-up first serve and a much-improved second serve (traditionally his great weakness), Murray complemented his devastating defense and return game with impressive management of his own service.  He defeated Rafael Nadal in a cold, damp semifinal through dogged and aggressive play.  Although ultimately unable to overcome Novak Djokovic’s mental edge in the final, Murray played one of his strongest matches against Djokovic in years.

Murray has already reversed one important result in this clay court season by turning a defeat to Nadal in Monte Carlo into a win in Madrid.  His close loss to Djokovic this week could conceivably lead to a win in Paris.

Murray must be considered a contender, even if a long shot, for this year’s French Open, especially if he is able to advance through the draw without ever having to face Djokovic.

 

Novak Djokovic is a favorite, but not necessarily The Favorite, for the French Open.

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Novak Djokovic played much better in Madrid than he had played in Monte Carlo three weeks earlier.  Having had time to acclimate himself to clay and to rest from his grueling and victorious tear through the early-season hard court events, Djokovic demonstrated much-improved movement and ball-striking.

At times, he exhibited his robotically perfect best, returning every ball with power, precision, and devastating accuracy, dragging his opponents around the court, creating impossible angles, and dominating proceedings absolutely.  At other times, he displayed a mental vulnerability that has become increasingly commonplace for him in 2016.  He broke his own serve with a series of errors as he tried to serve out his semifinal match against Kei Nishikori.  He nearly repeated the feat in the final by gift-wrapping several break chances for Murray in the final game.

If Djokovic plays at his best in the crucial moments of his matches at Roland Garros, he will be nearly unbeatable.  However, if he allows his level to drop, as he did against Murray and at moments against Nishikori, he could be vulnerable to an upset.

 

Weather is a crucial factor on clay.

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Clay demands greater adaptability from tennis players than any other surface, because clay is the only surface on which play continues in the rain.  Grass courts are dangerously slippery in the rain.  Hard courts become ponds, and even in a drizzle a hard court’s painted lines become treacherous.  By contrast, clay courts can absorb water, allowing play to continue though a light shower.

When rain begins, though, clay tennis evolves in a matter of minutes into what is effectively a new sport.  Cooler temperatures and falling rain conspire to slow the ball’s transit through the air.  The balls grow heavy as they pick up water and wet clay.  The heavier balls refuse to take spin, reducing the effectiveness of top-spin shots and necessitating changes of strategy.  Players are required to hit harder while simultaneously recalibrating their shots for the new conditions.

In Madrid, the contrast between rainy clay and dry clay conditions was on display during the quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Joao Sousa, which was effectively two different matches.

During the first set, the sun shone through cloud cover.  Nadal controlled the rallies with his vicious top-spin, and Sousa generated a series of wild errors as he desperately tried to match his opponent’s power.  In less than 26 minutes, Nadal won the set 6-0.

Rain started during the second set.  The balls became heavy.  Nadal’s top-spin lost much of its bite.  Sousa’s flat bullet shots started landing in rather than out.  After playing to a draw for eight games, Sousa broke Nadal’s serve in the ninth game and took the set 6-4.

By the third set, the stadium’s roof had been closed for three games.  Although the rain no longer fell inside, the air was still cold, and the court and balls were still sodden.  Nadal continued to struggle for advantage until the balls were changed (according to the standard schedule) in the eighth game.  With, at long last, dry felt to deal with, Nadal was able to use his spin and power to advantage and break Sousa’s serve.  Nadal went on to win the set 6-3.

Whether the weather be wet or dry in Roland Garros this year will play a crucial role in determining the French Open champion.

 

This week the tour moves on to a Masters 1000 event in Rome, where the rainy weather is predicted to begin on Wednesday.

 

The French Open begins in two weeks.
Stay tuned.