2013 Madrid Open: What last week can tell us about the upcoming French Open

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

The 2013 Mutua Madrid Open wrapped up over the weekend, with Rafael Nadal topping Stan Wawrinka in the men's final and Serena Williams knocking out Maria Sharapova on the women's side.

Madrid is the second-to-last major tune-up before everybody heads to Roland Garros for the French Open at the end of May. As the last tune-up, the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome, gets rolling let's take a look back at what we learned in Madrid.

15-0: Rafael Nadal is Rafael Nadal

The road actually got easier for eventual men's champion Rafael Nadal toward the end of the week. After receiving a first-round bye, Nadal had to take out Benoit Paire (the No. 29 clay court player in the world according to Advanced Baseline) in the second round and Mikhail Youzhny (No. 53) in the third, then faced David Ferrer (No. 3) in the quarterfinals. It was a loaded draw.

Nadal dropped only 12 games versus Paire and Youzhny but got all he could handle from Ferrer, who took the first set and created opportunities in the second. But Nadal eventually prevailed in a second-set tie-breaker, then rolled through the third, 6-0, to advance to the semifinals. There, he smoked surprising wildcard Pablo Andujar, then took the title with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Stan Wawrinka.

Nadal certainly benefited a bit from a series of upsets -- No. 1 Novak Djokovic lost in the second round to Grigor Dimitrov, No. 2 Roger Federer lost in the third round to No. 14 Kei Nishikori, and No. 3 Andy Murray lost to No. 6 Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals -- but those upsets didn't change what we already know: Only Djokovic can beat Nadal on clay.

Despite missing quite a bit of 2012 with injury and easing into the 2013 schedule, Rafael Nadal is once again Rafael Nadal. He is the world's best clay-court player, and he seems to have found fifth gear just in time to make a run at his eighth French Open title in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, if the 28-year old Wawrinka is ever going to make a serious breakthrough in a slam (his best finishes to date are quarterfinal appearances at the 2010 U.S. Open and 2011 Australian Open), it will probably be on clay. He is a top 10 player on the surface, and in taking out Dimitrov, No. 7 Jo-Wilifried Tsonga, and No. 6 Berdych, he proved he can win some tough, long matches against elite competition. The draw will be very important for him, but if he ends up in a region with Murray or Federer, he could plow through to the semifinals at Roland Garros.

15-all. Serena can play on clay

That Serena Williams needed to beat Maria Sharapova to retain her No. 1 WTA ranking proves that the rankings system is pretty silly. She has clearly been the most dominant player in the world over the past 12 months, but failing to defend her Madrid title would have resulted in quite a few lost rankings points. Alas, that was not a concern. She sleep-walked through the early stages of the tournament (she was taken to a tie-breaker in the first set of her first-round match versus Yanina Putintseva) and dropped a 6-0 set to Anabel Medina Garrigues in the quarterfinals (and was taken to 7-5 in the third); neither of these opponents are particularly amazing on clay. But once she reached the semis, she rounded into form. She whipped 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani in the semis, 7-5, 6-2, then cruised past Sharapova, 6-1, 6-4, in the finals. Sharapova looked tired at times, but with Williams in a rhythm, it didn't really matter what Sharapova could do.

A year ago, following a first-round upset loss to Virginie Razzano in the first round of the 2012 French Open, it was fair to wonder if Serena Williams could still prove she was the dominant player on the women's tour. In fact, I did just that. But beginning around the midway point of Wimbledon a month later, she clicked. She has spent most of the last 11 months dominating the sport, and despite her quarterfinal loss to Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open in January, she is likely poised for another big year in the slams. She has only won one French Open (she beat her sister Venus in the finals of the 2002 tournament), and the early rounds at Madrid proved that she can still lose focus at times. But she is the clear French favorite.

30-15: Grigor Dimitrov might be just about ready

We've heard for a while now that 21-year old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov could be the Next Big Thing in men's tennis. A fantastic juniors player (2008 Wimbledon and U.S. Open junior champion), he has a fantastic skill set, but his senior career has been all potential with little production thus far. His best slam finishes to date were three second-round appearances in 2012. But he is most certainly on the ascent. He had found his way into the Top 30 of both the ATP tour and Advanced Baseline rankings, and in Madrid, he scored the biggest win of his career: a 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, second-round victory over Djokovic. He also took the first set from Wawrinka in the third round before faltering. He should be seeded at the French Open, where anything less than a third-round appearance would have to be considered disappointing.

Of course, simply winning a big matches wasn't enough for him. He also figured out how to make the gossip pages. Big week for young Grigor.

30-all: Ana Ivanovic looks good

Not in that way. Okay, in that way, too, but you know what I'm getting at here.

The 2008 French Open champion and former No. 1 has spent most of the last half-decade ranked between about 10th and 20th, trying to fix her game and advance back to the elite level. She has had a nice 2013 season thus far, and she continued that in Madrid. Clay is her best surface, and she survived a tough draw to reach the semifinals. She took out surging American Bethanie Mattek-Sands (No. 24 on clay according to Advanced Baseline) in three sets in the first round, survived young Brit Laura Robson in the third round, and crushed sixth-seed Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals before bowing out to Sharapova.

Top 10 women's clay-courters according to Advanced Baseline (May 2013)
1. Serena Williams
2. Maria Sharapova
3. Victoria Azarenka
4. Na Li
5. Agnieszka Radwanska
6. Ana Ivanovic
7. Sara Errani
8. Sam Stosur
9. Venus Williams
10. Svetlana Kuznetsova

According to these rankings, Ivanovic was supposed to do well this past week. But meeting expectations has been an issue at times. Madrid was another nice step forward.

40-30: The "Has the end come for Federer?" narrative isn't going away

The 2013 season hasn't been very fun for men's tennis' greatest of all-time. No. 1 late in 2012, he has fallen to third overall and could fall even further once Nadal has played enough tournaments. He lost to Andy Murray in the Aussie semifinals, then lost to Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam and Berdych in Dubai and was crushed by Nadal in Indian Wells. He took most of two months off before Madrid to rest but fell in three sets to Kei Nishikori in his second match.

People have been predicting Federer's demise for years now, as if there is a prize to win if you get it right the fastest. I have long hated narratives like this, simply because when a champion is officially done, we know it. We don't have to guess, we don't have to get a jump on reality; reality makes itself known when it needs to. And whether this is truly the end or not, it has certainly been a poor few months for Fed. Clay has never been his strong suit to begin with, and now he plods toward Roland Garros with more doomsayers than ever.

Deuce: Andy Murray isn't a clay guy (yet)

Top 10 Clay-Courters according to Advanced Baseline (May 2013):
1. Rafael Nadal
2. Novak Djokovic
3. David Ferrer
4. Roger Federer
5. Juan Martin del Potro
6. Nicolas Almagro
7. Tomas Berdych
8. Stan Wawrinka
9. Andy Murray
10. Richard Gasquet

Andy Murray is almost as good as it gets on hard courts, and he will likely be the Wimbledon favorite in June when the abbreviated grass court season begins. And because of the points he had stored up, he has reached No. 2 in the ATP rankings despite the fact that he really hasn't played that well since the Australian Open. He lost to del Potro in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells (6-1 in the third), survived to take the Miami title despite not playing very well, got destroyed by Wawrinka in Monte Carlo (6-1, 6-1), and in Madrid, barely held on versus Florian Meyer and Gilles Simon before falling in straight sets to Berdych.

Murray appeared to lose his form a bit toward the end of hard court season, and he has not been very good at all in his two clay tournaments thus far. The clay-court specialists who end up in his region at the French Open will be licking their chops.

Ad: Sloane Stephens' outspokenness is charming at times and can get her into trouble at other times

This has very little to do with Madrid itself; Stephens was whipped in straight sets by 30-year old Daniela Hantuchova in the first round. But in case you missed it, Stephens, who has fallen into a terrible slump since reaching the Australian Open semifinals, vented a bit to ESPN the Magazine recently.

“She’s not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia,” Stephens says emphatically. “And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.”

Her mom tries to slow her down, but Sloane is insistent. “Like, seriously! People should know. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and she’s so that — no, that’s not reality! You don’t unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?” […]

“I’ve always said Kim Clijsters is my favorite player, so it’s kind of weird,” she says.

Quite a few American women looked good in Madrid; Serena won the title, Madison Keys destroyed No. 5 Na Li in the first round, Varvara Lepchenko took out No. 12 Roberta Vinci and proved again that clay is probably her best surface, Christina McHale beat Shuai Peng in the first round, and even in losing to Ivanovic, Mattek-Stands proved that she is a potential force on clay. Stephens' comments perhaps distracted us a bit from the fact that she's looked mostly awful since Melbourne; an early-round loss at the French Open, however, would certainly get our attention in that regard.

Game: Clay is crazy

On the men's side, the No. 1 seed lost in the second round, the No. 2 lost in the third, and the No. 3 lost in the quarterfinals. Plus, the No. 8 lost in the second round, and the No. 9 and No. 10 lost in the first. On the women's side, the top two seeds made the finals, but No. 3 lost in the second round, No. 4 got obliterated in the second, No. 5 got thumped in the first, No. 8 lost in the second, and No. 9 and No. 10 lost in the first.

It feels at times that the clay courts have sped up just enough to prevent quite as many upsets from taking place. And then, at times, you get Madrid. For all we know, the top seeds will hold form at the French Open in two weeks, but if Madrid is any indication, it could be another free-for-all.

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