Today marked our first day on site at the Madrid Masters in the Caja Magica and our first Masters event credentialed as official press. I have to say, things do look different from the other side of the fence, but more about that later. For now, as always, we're gonna focus on what you care about and that's the tennis. Here are my three thoughts from Sunday in Madrid.
Siempre Azul: First off, I can't write a column on the tournament without first detouring into a take on the smurf turf. I actually think if I tried to ignore the blue clay, I might be arrested for breach of pre-event storyline. if you're not interested, feel free to just skip the next two paragraphs, I understand.
Here's the deal, the clay is in fact, blue. For those curious to know just how much so, the exact hue reminds me of packets of Berry Blue Kool-Aid. If the beverage selection in your house growing up didn't include this "just-add-water" American delicacy, first of all, I'm sorry; second, given the lack of an appropriately descriptive Google image, just check out the picture above. Blue enough for you? Yes, it's blue clay and as far as we can tell the world kept spinning; social order has not collapsed and the Mutua Madrid Open is running smoothly, traditionalists' protests notwithstanding. Every player that I saw in the press room was asked about the terre battue bleu and most believed the courts were, in fact, more slippery than usual. Yet, all the noise aside, Caroline Wozniacki was the only player to take a serious tumble. She suffered a scary fall early in her match and spent the rest of the it with blue clay accents on her dress, but ultimately she would move on.
In case you were unaware how big a topic, the terre battue bleu is, World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka was asked about it three different times to start her post match press conference. She won my unofficial quote of the day award with the following reaction: "The surface is what it is, the best thing you can do is try to win matches and adapt to it. To talk about if it's good or not doesn't make any sense." She's right. Monte Carlo's clay is different from Houston's. The hardcourts at Indian Wells are different those in Key Biscayne and the grass at Wimbledon, isn't exactly the same as what the chalk is painted on in Newport. Surface change is an (underappreciated) part of the game, this is just another in a long line of different surfaces each of these pros will play on this year. They'll adapt, they always have before.
Blue clay discussion, finito. On to other matters.
That So Cray(bas): Now ranked 137th in the world, ageless American Jill Craybas qualified her way into the main event, but fell today to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three up-and-down sets. The result could be considered as much a stroke of bad luck for the American as it is a stroke of much needed good luck for the reeling Russian. Pavlyuchenkova came into the Mutua Madrid Open just 3-11 on the year. Although she's still ranked 22nd in the world, in the year-to-date race, she's out of the Top 100. Translation: Pavlyuchenkova has a ton of points to defend and she needs to start doing so right here in Madrid.
What struck me about this match though was watching Craybas. The American pushed her way into a second set tiebreak and won it 8-6. Then the boulder rolled downhill twice as fast and right over Craybas. Pavlyuchenkova won 92% of her 1st service points in that third set, up from 70% in the second and just 56% in the first. The same stat for Craybas nosedived from 69% in the second set to 53% in the third. Nonetheless, despite her game falling apart, Craybas was the definition of a professional. After going down a quick double break to open the set, Craybas called her coach in for a second set of eyes as to the issue. More than that, she actually seemed to ENGAGE in the conversation versus just staring ahead. At 5-0, with the adjustments not having immediately turn the tide, there were no tantrums, trashed frames or audible obscenities, she just stared ahead and thought, looking for a way in. She would win the next game, but that face saving breadstick would be her last stand in a 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-1 loss to Pavlyuchenkova. Were not sure how many more times she's going to go around the circuit, but in terms of comportment, Craybas can still teach a fair bit to the young gunnettes.
The Cream Always Rises: Caroline Wozniacki takes a lot of stick for her 67 week (but infamously major-less) stint as the WTA No. 1, but even those who don't consider her to have been a worthy No. 1, likely believe that she is among the elite players, the WTA's Andy Murray if you will. Today, she took on a tough first rounder as the World No. 6, withstood a stiff challenge from the barely unseeded World No. 38 Ksenia Pervak, 7-6 (6) 3-6, 6-4.
This is a match in which Pervak had her chances, when I initially predicted she might fold after a few shaky games to open set three, Pervak threw in a blinder of a service game (closing with two aces) to emphatically take a 3-1 lead over the Almost Great Dane. I was a game too soon, the nerves waited until Wozniacki was serving and in the blink of an eye, or seemingly so, Wozniacki reeled off three consecutive games, 4-3 Wozniacki. It was in this stretch that Wozniacki showed her class, and that she's still a good level or two above a player like Pervak. When top players get deep into the third set they don't start shanking balls into the net or guiding them beyond the baseline. They start hitting lines and getting the umpire out of his chair to check ball marks. The ability to handle pressure on a consistent basis might be the single greatest predictor of success at this game whose very scoring system requires you to win battle after battle before you can consider winning a war. Wozniacki's won a war or two in her time,we just get caught up in the ones she hasn't. Kinda like the blue clay, maybe it's time we move past that narrative and focus on what's directly in front of us.
Azarenka photo courtesy the Mutua Madrid Open