The Magic Box lived up to its name in Madrid on last-16 day. The courts there have come in for much criticism since before the tournament even began: bad bounce, wrong colour, not enough of them to practise on.
What the organisers might not have expected was that the weather would whip up even more problems. The wind entered the high enclosed environs of the Santana and the Sanchez Vicario courts and, quite literally, kicked up a storm.
The courts are very dry and the surface very loose. In wind, the dust blusters around the stadia, while the light surface makes it difficult for the players to change direction. Add to this that the balls fly just a little quicker through the air in Madrid’s high plateau, and timing and rhythm are the first casualties.
First to suffer was Andy Murray. He had a tough first set against Tommy Robredo, eventually winning it 7-5. As he started to find a bit more form, he also lost a little composure and swore his way to a 6-1 winning set.
Murray may be playing down his chances of becoming the filling in the Nadal-Federer sandwich, but judging from his body language, he’d like the No.2 spot sooner rather than later. On paper, it’s a distinct possibility at this very event. Is that what has lit the fire in Roger Federer’s belly?
Federer himself was next up against James Blake, and the warning about the court went out early. The umpire, during the coin toss, explained that the hosing between sets would take a little longer than the players were used to. He sought their patience with a shrug of the shoulders.
This should have been a cracking match, with vengeance on the menu for Blake’s temerity in taking Federer out of Olympic contention at their last meeting. In the event, it was a patchy, disjointed and ultimately disappointing game.
Blake has, in recent months, acquired the hang-dog look of someone who doesn’t have the answers any more. In fact, he hit his blistering forehand very well for the most of this match, and his net game was also solid. But he seemed unable to work out the tactics to back these up.
Federer broke his serve immediately—with a stunning backhand top spin down the line. More evidence that this side of his game is looking better than it has done in a while. With a second break of serve, he took the first set, 6-2 and, to rub salt into the wound, proceeded to break Blake in the first game of the second set too.
The result of the match then never looked in doubt, though it was a rather a lack-lustre affair of short rallies, littered with errors. With neither player able to find any rhythm, they had no time to develop strategic points. The encounter lasted barely an hour.
For a pair of attacking players like these—and it was noticeable that both received serve closer to the baseline than most others on the circuit—the flaky conditions were a nightmare. Both are inclined to take the ball early, but the combined effect of wind and unpredictable bounce meant that shots were mis-hit or misjudged.
Their reactions? Blake got irritated and ever more downcast.
Federer remained calm, apparently oblivious to the conditions and the errors. A good sign, if he can keep that "missing link" when he really needs it deeper in the tournament.
Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic and Andreas Seppi had got underway next door, and the conditions there were, if anything, worse than on the centre court. It resembled a dust bowl, the players fading into the swirling clouds of grit.
This deep, overshadowed court is one of the more bizarre on the circuit. With so much money invested in this Madrid facility, it seems extraordinary that the designers came up with this shape, orientation and design.
To the television viewer, at least, the deep shadow bisecting the length of the court, extreme overhangs of the roof, and lack of space around the court’s edge are all detrimental to the game. It even sounds like an aircraft hanger, the ball and voices echoing around the hollow metal rectangle.
Allowing for these conditions, Djokovic and Seppi turned in some high quality tennis, and the 6-4,6-4 win to Djokovic belied the ebb and flow of the play. From 4-1 up, Djokovic was broken back in the first set, lost his temper and with it a racket.
There was some light relief between the two sets when the hosing got a little out of control and drenched ball boy, seats and the players’ bags. But the hosing also seemed to settle the court surface, and the play improved as the minutes ticked by. Towards the end of the second set, in particular, the rallies developed into long and testing battles.
Noticeable again—as it had been in Rome—was Djokovic’s excellent touch around the net. In particular, he has cultivated the low, shallow crosscourt volley to devastating effect.
It was not only water that drenched the court between the sets in this match. The news that Philipp Kohlschreiber had withdrawn with injury, and thus handed Rafael Nadal a walk-over to the quarter-finals, came like a clap of thunder. A rested Nadal? There will be more sleepless nights for the rest of the draw!
As if the tennis gods wanted to hand down yet more punishment on this disrupted tournament, a second announcement confirmed that Nikolay Davydenko had also withdrawn with injury.
So the night session at Madrid was wiped out at a stroke, with the Verdasco-Monaco match hastily rescheduled into the early evening slot.
Fernando Verdasco—the home-town boy—thankfully served up a treat for the crowd, despite a severe test from the in-form Juan Monaco.
The wind dropped in empathy with the moment, and the tennis soared. In what was possibly the best match of the day, both players produced top-notch shots, smashes, and serves, sweeping the ball all round the court.
Monaco had the upper hand in the first set, but an over-excited Verdasco reined himself in just enough to break back and run out the 7-5 winner. He clinched the match, with iron nerves, power and athleticism in a score of 6-2.
A word of praise for Monaco: his speed, flexibility and touch around a clay court are a lesson in how to use the qualities of this distinctive surface.
He skidded, skipped and sprinted as though born on it. A real treat.
So Federer meets up with Andy Roddick for the first time in 19 matches on clay.
Nadal meets his countryman again, but this time in Verdasco’s back yard. Murray’s birthday present is a match against del Potro, while Serb Djokovic meets Croat Ljubicic.
The road to the quarter-finals has been wind-swept and dust-strewn. Manolo Santana will be hoping that the tennis starts to make the headlines in Madrid rather than the conditions.