10 May, 2012

Madrid 5/9: Three Thoughts

Viva La Vida: "I used to roll the dice, feel the fear in my enemy's eyes / Listen as the crowd would sing 'Now the old king is dead, long live the king.' / One minute I held the key, next the walls were closed on me / And I discovered that my castles stand on pillars of sand, pillars of sand"  

When the house DJ dropped Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" on a changeover deep in the third set of Roger Federer's epic three set tussle with Milos Raonic, the lyrics seemed as if Chris Martin had specifically written them about the 16-time major champion.  Well, Federer staved on an extraordinary effort from Milos Raonic to continue his Madrid Open with a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) win over the towering Canadian.  Looks like the old king isn't quite ready to pack up his things and move along.

Make no mistake, the match was even closer than the scoreline would indicate; it was played on a razor's edge with only the final scoreline separating the winner from the loser.  In fact, Raonic got the better of the third seed for most of this pressure cooker of a contest.  He held three break points at 5-all in the second set which he couldn't convert.  While many players would have said too good at that point, leaving the third set as a formality for Federer's advancement to the next round, Raonic pushed on.  "Today I stepped on the court believing I could win, " Raonic said in his presser, "and I left the court, I think, knowing I could win."  Raonic played like it, serving from behind the entire match, he didn't face a break point in the ultimate set.

Twice, deep in the third set Federer carved dropshots that looked like winners only to have Raonic stab save backhand winners down the line past him.  At 5-4 in the third set, I wrote down in my notes "At this point in the match you always pick the higher ranked player."  Call it the power of accumulated momentum, or having been of the winning side of these situations more often, but all things being equal (and they were last night) the top players will usually come through.  Against most players, this is a match that Raonic wins...not against Federer, but that wasn't because Maple Leap Milos bowed under the pressure, it's because of a superior effort from the longtime champion.  The match was a credit to both men, but the win and the spot in the third round goes to Federer.  Just like in his match with Raonic, he won't squader the opportunity.

Rafa In Madrid: Rafael Nadal has often had tough words regarding the Madrid tournament.  He's pointed out that the conditions created by the altitude aren't the ideal preparation for Roland Garros (the tournament has since moved back a week to precede Rome); he's also famously (like pretty much everyone else) not been a fan of the move to blue clay.  That said, Nadal loves playing in his home country and his Spanish fans love him.  Nadal was treated to a heroes' welcome yesterday afternoon in Madrid.  Fans who filled the Manolo Santana Stadium Court (and it was full for maybe the first time all week) by and large descended to the lowest rung of the stadium possible to get the best picture of Nadal as he came onto the court. They chanted "Rafa, Rafa" during the warmup and gave him a huge ovation when his name was announced.

He played the role of hero well, dispatching longtime nemesis Nikolay Davydenko 6-2, 6-2 in a command performance, smothering any attempt by the Russian to build momentum.  Nadal played an impressive, aggressive match, taking the initiative earlier than usual, pounding home six aces and never facing a break point. If he looked more comfortable on court than his rival Novak Djokovic did in his first rounder, it's more than just the crowd support. "I always try my best to be ready to play in good condition when I'm playing in Madrid," said Nadal.  "I arrived here on Thursday, knowing that the conditions would be difficult.  I never arrived Thursday before to no one tournament.  when you see all of this, it's because my...motivation to play well here is probably higher than the rest of the places."  OK, maybe it is knowing the level of crowd support he would have in Madrid.

Nadal also clarified his thoughts on the blue clay: "If this tournament happens in the summer, if this tournament happens at the end of the year, I never would have any word against the change, said Nadal. "I always think that it's good to see new things, but not in this part of the calendar, not in the middle of the clay court season."

WTA Stars Still Smiling: Ana Ivanovic dropped a tight match 6-4, 6-4 to World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka yesterday after taking a 4-1 lead to open the match.  Rueing the missed opportunity, Ivanovic said "It was frustrating because I just let it slip with a few unforced errors."  Yet, she still has a lot to look forward to, with much claycourt tennis still to play for the 2008 Roland Garros champion, "I'm excited for the next few weeks and yesterday I had a great match," Ivanovic noted.  "I want to take a lot of positives from that...and try to get my act together for the even bigger ones."  Not to mention, opportunities to represent her native Serbia both in the Olympics and surprisingly to even her, the Fed Cup. "as much as we hoped that we would get to this point we didn't believe that we would really manage to do it, she said.  "I think that the whole country and, of course, all of us, are very proud to have reached the final."

The winner of the match, Victoria Azarenka has focused on staying positive even in the face of adversity.  When she was down 4-1, she said "...I knew I could turn it around.  I just needed a small opportunity."  It's been a shift in Azarenka's mindset that has been the catalyst to her improved results and No. 1 ranking.  A fact which is not lost on Azarenka.  "I can see by the results that that's what's helping me, so why would I go back to doing the wrong things, questioned Azarenka.  "But definitely, it's not easy because there's always times when you get frustrated....You always have some obstacles to go through."  Azarenka's next obstacle, another Roland Garros champion.  Defending champ Na Li/Li Na in the quarterfinals.

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