DEEPER DIVE: MADRID OPEN


Photographs: Getty Images


ATP 1000


As the ATP Tour headed into Madrid for the Masters 1000, all tour players and fans know the magnitude and importance of the next four weeks.

Madrid starts it off followed by Rome and then on to Paris for the crown jewel, Roland Garros. There cannot be hiding anymore and there cannot be disagreeing with form lines. If you win matches from this point on and you go deep over the next two weeks you have to be seriously considered a chance to make the second week in Paris.

Madrid is one of the showcase events on the clay-court climb and a lot of the talk and buzz has been around Carlos Alcaraz and his whirlwind climb into the top ten. But the heavy hitters were shaping up at this event so surely world order would be restored.

There was Novak Djokovic taking his customary place at the top of the draw and the great Rafa Nadal was showing his face needing matches before Paris after a brief injury lay-off. All the talk was based around these three guys as there hasn’t been another athlete on tour during this clay-court swing that has warranted deep deep conversation.

The talk had been on Djokovic and his ability to get matches and conditioning before five sets come into the equation and as for Nadal, the talk was ‘does he just walk through guys now he is back on the clay.’

But mostly the talk had been on the wonder kid Alcaraz and if he could continue his magical run and if he could do it against the absolute giants of the sport.

The marquee matchup in round one was Andy Murray and Dominic Thiem. Thiem must be starting to have serious doubts about his level of play as he went out 6-3, 6-4 in fairly regulation fashion to the Brit who has hardly been happy with his own results of late. Thiem clearly lacks confidence and impacting in Paris in a few weeks seems unlikely.

As the round of 32 got moving, Djokovic faced Gael Monfils, which on paper looked enticing but was once again anything but. The scoreline finishing 6-3, 6-2 to the world No. 1 who saved all five of the break points he faced. The Serbian was just too tough it was as simple as that.

Nadal had his hands full with one of the hottest players on tour in Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia. The top 20 beckons for the young Serb and after he was blasted 6-1 in the first set he showed great resilience only to lose the second set 7-6(4) to the Spanish king. Once his second serve ball had to hit the box it was a slow death. 6/19 at a 32% win rate will not get it done against the ultimate clay court messiah. The young Kecmanovic now looks to Rome hoping for a better draw.

As Alcaraz strolled out for his first appearance he was a youngster in a hurry. Nikoloz Basilashvili was the opponent and patience is not something the Georgian has. He likes to go big and go big often, but in one hour and 23 minutes he just couldn’t defend well enough and he found himself next to Kecmanovic on the sidelines.

Some of the big-name casualties from round two included Casper Ruud who surprisingly is struggling to put some matches together. Denis Shapavalov went out to Murray in three sets. The Canadian seems to have plateaued which is concerning. Alex de Minaur still can’t work out the Jannik Sinner puzzle going out 6-4, 6-1. Alex Zverev was too much for Marin Cilic as he moved through and there were also wins for key players Hubert Hurkacz, David Goffin, Cam Norrie and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Things were starting to take shape but it was a dramatic round three. Murray withdrew before even a ball was struck sending Djokovic through to the quarters.

Regulation wins for Andrey Rublev and Tsitsipas followed by a Felix Auger-Aliassime domination over Sinner 6-2, 6-1 saw some star power move through. The Italian Lorenzo Musetti pulled the pin trailing Zverev and now looks in doubt for Rome.

The question then moved to could the lefty Norrie trouble Alcaraz. If there is one thing that Norrie does, it is compete. He leaves it all out there and can frustrate even the very best players in the world. Norrie left it all out there and when he stole the second set 7-6(4) the scene was set for a dramatic third.

It was anything but. Alcaraz once again showed maturity beyond his years saving 7/9 break points at 78% compared to the Norrie 2/7 at 29%. Once again it was the difference. Alcaraz too good in the clutch.

The big story from round three was the trouble that Nadal found himself in. Goffin has been a shadow of himself for the last two seasons on tour but gave Nadal all he could handle. Three hours and 10 minutes later it was Nadal the last man standing, saving a match point along the way 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(9).

The quarterfinals went totally to plan. Djokovic was never bothered by Poland's Hurkacz. No break points faced for Djokovic and no uncomfortable moments.

Tsitsipas showed that clay courts are his best surface with a three-set win over Rublev. No matter what Rublev threw at Tsitsipas he had the answers and the match had a predictable feel about it. When Zverev took care of business down the bottom half taking out Auger- Aliassime 6-3, 7-5 it showed the work that the Canadian needs to do to get these type of quality clay court wins moving forward. The same can be said for Rublev. Tsitsipas and Zverev are a class above on the slow stuff.

Those matches were great but the Nadal v Alcaraz quarter had a different feel. It was understandable. Nadal is the ultimate challenge on the clay. As this one got started it was the energy coming from the Alcaraz side of the net that stood out.

The 19-year-old was like a freight train winning the first set 6-2. In set two, Nadal locked in and errors started to flow from the youngster's racket. His level dropped and when he went over on his ankle moving wide to the forehand he looked in trouble. 6-1 to Nadal with one to go.

One thing that Alcaraz has shown on this run of his is he is not afraid of the big moments and this was no different. He began to find his range again and more importantly his movement and ankle looked more stable than previously.

Both players' total point counts at the end of the match were virtually identical but it was Alcaraz again in the clutch moments that was the difference. Mr clay court clutch himself Nadal was on the receiving end. Nadal converted break points 3/9 at 33% to Alcaraz 4/5 at 80%. There was the difference. You combine that with break points saved, Nadal 1/5 at 20% to Alcaraz 6/9 at 67% and the numbers for the Spanish wonder kid are off the charts.

The first Madrid semi-final showcased Djokovic and Alcaraz and what transpired had to be seen to be believed. This three-set match went three hours and 35 minutes. It was a match of the highest quality with both players going toe to toe from the back.

Drop shots were flowing, change of direction patterns, dynamic lateral movement combined with shrewd sneaky attacks to the net. All facets of the game were on display for the fans and when Djokovic won the first set in a tiebreak 7-6(5) you suspected he was back to his best and feeling great. But it was Alcaraz who hung tough once again with some enthralling tennis.

The confidence and body language remained positive and when he levelled 7-5 it was last man standing stuff. This was a match of two players bringing high quality stuff. Was it Djokovic at his best? That is hard to say considering his lack of a consistent schedule. But as both players went into the third set tie break the drama was palpable.

As Alcaraz stepped to the line to serve at match point at 6-5 he delivered a perfect pattern to start the point. High kick serve to the Djokovic backhand at 180km an hour. Djokovic caught it late and the ball sat there for Alcaraz to upgrade to an inside-in forehand that cleared the net with height, spin and velocity. A match for the ages saw him though.

As Tsitsipas and Zverev came out for the second semi-final you couldn’t help but feel satisfied already. But it was the serving display from the big German that saw him get this one. He hit on 73% of his first serve bombs which was more than enough to keep Tsitsipas at bay. He only faced two break points for the entire match and remained pressure free. It was this number that jumped off the page as Tsitsipas only made 50% of his first serve balls. It is not enough at this level. A good week for the Greek but his tournament was done.

Alcaraz and Zverev were the last two standing but it wasn’t for long. One way traffic in a big big way. It’s one that Zverev would want to forget.

He was dominated in all areas of the contest and looked sluggish and helpless throughout. As a look of the inevitable came over his face after the first set loss of 6-3 the only question was if there was any fight left. There was none.

Alcaraz dominated on serve more than any other time in the tournament. The numbers were frightening. He won 32/38 combined first and second serve points. Yes, that is correct. He lost just six points on serve in a Masters 1000 final.

When the match was done 6-3, 6-1 in a little over an hour Alcaraz had won almost twice as many total points for the match. No matter how you looked at it it was bad reading for the world No. 3 German.

So with a little over a week to go to the French Open, one thing remains perfectly clear. The narrative has now shifted from is this just a hot streak from the youngster Alcaraz to can he lift the French Open as early as 2022.

The question has scarily become who is going to stop him. Wins over Nadal and Djokovic back to back on the clay tell myself that he is of course ready to lift the trophy. Was Djokovic at his best? Is Nadal underdone? They are running out of time to get up to speed.

One thing is abundantly clear. Alcaraz is moving at breakneck speed and is not looking back. Which one of these iconic and legendary champions can stop him?

WTA 1000

Since the sudden retirement of Australian superstar and world No. 1 Ash Barty, the women’s game on the WTA Tour is taking quite a while to settle down.

Barty stayed atop the game in her own special place and when news filtered through that she would no longer be there, questions were raised around the women’s game. Is the Barty retirement forever? Who steps in now to be the face of the game? Was this even good for the sport? Who will be the one to hold the torch and will it be legitimate? There were more questions than answers.

Fast forward to May 2022 and some questions have been answered. Iga Swiatek has separated herself from the rest of the pack with a dominant two months on tour. She sits atop the tree. Former No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka has shown she can’t handle the heat. She has dropped to No. 8 and serving woes and a lack of variation continue to haunt her.

Garbine Muguruza is back in the top ten which is pleasing to see as she has real star power. Paula Badosa of Spain sits at No. 3 and she jumps off the page as a superstar if she can crack the Grand Slam puzzle. But, it is an unheralded low key and possibly reluctant star that sits at No. 7. Let me introduce you to Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur.

Coming into the Madrid WTA 1000 the 64 draw certainly had star power throughout but the question was who would be the player to back that up? Who would be the player to take the opportunity to lift one of the biggest trophies on tour?

Swiatek pulled out. Too many wins and too much tennis for her. A good problem to have. A break was needed. Outside of that in the draw there were names such as Emma Raducanu, Coco Gauff, Muguruza, Maria Sakkari, Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, Danielle Collins, Sabalenka, Simona Halep and Badosa. Opportunity knocked. Who would it be?

As play got underway the first casualty was Sabalenka. The young American Amanda Anisimova proved too tough, winning 6-4 in the third set in a first-round blockbuster that could have gone either way. Tough draw for both ladies and it was Sabalenka who goes back to the drawing board.

Murguruza and Sakkari were the next to go in round two. A 6-3, 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Anhelina Kalinina sends alarm bells ringing for Murguruza two weeks out from the French Open. Not the kind of loss that warms the hearts of her fans.

For Sakkari it was Daria Kasatkina who showed why clay is her preferred surface. She is crafty, changes pace beautifully and thinks her way through matches. Sakkari was frustrated and was soon on her way back to the locker room.

The upsets kept coming when Naomi Osaka was defeated 6-3, 6-1 by Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo. The jury remains out on Osaka on whether or not she is a threat at the majors anymore. Two weeks of relentless focus and media coverage must be handled to win Slams. Does Osaka have the energy and mental application to do that anymore?

The last match of significance was down the bottom half of the draw where Halep and Badosa were matched up. Halep showed she needs to be taken seriously in Paris moving forward. She was clinical in a 6-3, 6-1 win. Halep saved 6/7 of the break points she faced and converted 50% of the ten break chances she created. A big tick for the Halep confidence.

Round of 16 matches saw wins for Anisimova over Victoria Azarenka while Raducanu fell short again when Ukrainian Kalinina continued her stellar run. Kasatkina ran out of steam in a painful loss to Sorribes Tormo and the blockbuster match-up down the bottom half saw Halep with a regulation 6-4, 6-4 win over Gauff.

Jessica Pegula eliminated former US Open Champion Andreescu 7-5, 6-1 to blow that part of the draw wide open. Questions continue to remain about Andreescu’s physical condition. The weekly tour grind is tough and Andreescu is barely on court for any kind of continuation due to constant issues. Can she solve this issue moving forward?

When Ons Jabeur took down Belinda Bencic in another three-setter 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 maybe it was time to take notice.

The draw was wide open up top. Jil Teichmann moved through to a semi-final 6-3, 6-4 over Kalinina while Pegula continued to fly the American flag, taking out the tough Spaniard Sorribes Tormo.

The bottom half was different. Anisimova missed a huge opportunity once again at a big event when she lost to the qualifier Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-4, 6-3. But it was the second quarterfinal where a statement was made.

Jabeur completely picked apart Halep on her coveted clay court surface in a 60-minute masterclass. If you weren’t paying attention to Jabeur through the early rounds you certainly were now. She dominated Halep every time the Romanian had to hit a second serve and her break point execution and patterns of play were sharp, winning 4/5 on break points at 80% success. Jabeur was now a threat for this title.

Both semi-finals were straightforward for both Pegula and Jabeur. Both the favourites for their matches and it showed between the lines. Pegula had a calm confidence throughout her match in a 6-3 6-4 win. She now truly believes she should be competing for the big titles and her chance for glory had come.

Jabeur down the bottom half was dominant in another 60-minute match time, winning 6-2, 6-3. It was a great event for the qualifier Alexandrova. Semifinals at a Masters 1000 coming through the qualifying draw his a hugely successful week. But this was Jabeur’s time and it was evident once the first ball was struck.

As finals day Madrid 1000 rolled around the form guides were interesting. Pegula had been in devastating form throughout the week. Straight set demolitions against a quality field since round two showed she was for real.

While for Jabeur it was a slow burn. Two three-set matches early on was followed by arguably peak form where Halep was the casualty in the quarters. Jabeur had feasted on her opponent's second serve points throughout the week and the final was no different.

After almost two hours of back and forth tennis in a high pressure final, the numbers that jump off the page were the second serve return points won. Jabeur won 25/39 at a more than efficient 64% and it was the decisive statistical category that decided this Madrid Masters 1000 final.

Pegula converted 5/7 break point opportunities at a 71% clip throughout the match and this number would normally go a long way to lifting the trophy. But the Jabeur return dominance on second serves completely negated this area and it was Jabeur who reigned supreme in Madrid.

So as the WTA Tour now is in Rome one thing has become completely clear in a women’s game that so often seems cloudy.

Jabeur has now become a grand slam threat from here on out. A Masters 1000 title on the slow red clay could mean that French Open 2022 could indeed be hers also. It is not out of the question.

Jabeur plays with patience and flair. She plays with court craft and unpredictability which are strengths when navigating the slow quicksand that is European clay. I truly believe it is her best surface when you look at her game style and everything she has available to her in her tool kit.

She is a clay court nightmare match up. Jabeur brings something different and keeps you guessing. With a great team around her and supreme confidence now flowing the top five and possible Major glory is the next frontier.

Don’t sleep on the Tunisian that is Jabeur. It may be here sooner than you think.