I cannot remember when Rafael Nadal has squandered a two-break lead on clay in a deciding set before. Today, however, he did. Up 5-2 in the third set against Fernando Verdasco, against whom he was on a stretch of 13 consecutive wins, he lost his advantage and in the end, it’s the Madrid native who finally logged a win against Nadal, triumphing 6-3 3-6 7-5 in 3:10.
Verdasco fully deserved the win despite not playing his best for the most part of the second and third sets. Out of sheer joy, he collapsed on the court as though he had just won the tournament, kissed the blue clay, and was seen crying with the pure happiness of having finally had the better of the one whom he called the best clay court player of all times. “The biggest win of my career”, he said. And it really was.
Nadal threatens not to play next year, joined by Djokovic
It was nonetheless a wave of shock in Madrid today, seeing Nadal lose so early in a clay court event, even though the surface plays a lot more like a hard court than a clay court. Since it moved from indoor hard to clay, Madrid has always been faster than the other clay tournaments, due to the altitude. However, this year, it seems even worse than usual. Is it because of the blue dye? Is it because of bad maintenance? Perhaps a combination of both? I can’t tell.
What I can tell is that the dissatisfaction of the players is almost unanimous. It escalated to a whole new level today after Rafa’s defeat. The Spaniard was not very tender in his appreciation of the surface:
“Being able to move is very important for me and if I can’t move well, I can’t hit the ball well either. […] This surface destabilizes the game. It is a completely different game and I don’t want to take risks.”
He actually went even further in his declarations, even hinting about next year:
“If things don’t change next year, this will be one less tournament on the calendar for me.”
Some people found him pretty whiny as, after all, he had just lost in the round-of-16 of a tournament he’s always disliked, but the problem is that a few hours later, after defeating Stanislas Wawrinka 7-6(5) 6-4, World no 1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic joined Nadal in his will to boycott the event next year if things don’t change and berating the tournament, implying they lied to them about the surface:
“I’ve read all of the papers they have given me. They’re claiming the court is the same. It’s not true. […] The winner is the one who won’t finish injured at the end of the week. We hope this experience is the last one.”
For his part, Roger Federer has also voiced some criticism towards the surface after yesterday’s hard-fought victory against Milos Raonic. Asked about why he served and volleyed so much after the first set, the Swiss mentioned that the baseline was so slippery that moving forward was, for him, the only option to avoid tripping.
As a matter of fact, this match was much closer to a hard court encounter than a clay match, as the Canadian served no less than 21 aces, not much less than his average in a three-setter on hard, and there were no more than 10 real rallies in the whole match. Those are not numbers you’ll see on a clay court.
In fact, a lot of the statistics are not common to clay court events, or even to what Madrid was in the previous years. More aces for a lot of players (Rafa Nadal even signed his best aces per match performances of the season, for instance), winners that we about never see on a clay court, short rallies, etc. Nothing to make it feel like clay.
Where I agree with Nadal and Djokovic in the idea of a boycott if things don’t change is that Madrid is held about two weeks prior to the French Open, which is like, as Rafa said, making players play Cincinnati on grass prior to the US Open. With Madrid playing as it’s been since the beginning, and the worsening we’ve seen this season, what would likely be ideal is that Monte Carlo and Madrid should switch places in the calendar and that Madrid should become the optional Masters 1000.
Then let Ion Tiriac gloat in his own idées de grandeur and try silly things like phosphorescent balls (his last eccentricity) and blue ice-like clay. This way, players could just drop Madrid without being penalized in the end.