Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and the Winners and Losers at 2014 Madrid Masters

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMay 12, 2014

Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and the Winners and Losers at 2014 Madrid Masters

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    Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

    The 2014 Madrid Masters had unpredictable twists, but Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova were familiar names in the winner’s circle. Was Rafael Nadal just lucky? His Uncle Toni had a few things to say about that.

    Madrid also gave more experience to rising stars Simona Halep and Kei Nishikori. Will either of them finish their climb with the French Open title?

    There were also interesting comments from Andre Agassi, though nothing to enlighten the ongoing and irresolvable Greatest of All Time debate. Why is this topic really just a lot of hot air and smoke?

    And we look ahead to the Italian Open, hoping that a healthy Novak Djokovic and a rested Roger Federer can throw their competitive fire into the Roman arena.

    This is our weekly Winners and Losers column, where we look at the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Loser: Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

    Stanislas Wawrinka was a favorite choice by many to win the Madrid Masters. With Novak Djokovic sidelined by a wrist injury, Wawrinka had an easy draw to the final, or so it seemed.

    And then he was out in his first match, losing to young Dominic Thiem, a player who almost appears as a mirror image of Wawrinka. The 1-6, 6-2, 6-4 result was a stunning reversal of poise and power from Wawrinka to young Thiem. The young Austrian admitted in SI.com: "I couldn’t really handle his pace in the beginning, but I got used to it and played unbelievable in the second and third set."

    Credit Thiem for his continued rise up the ATP rankings (No. 61) and for another glimpse at the future of tennis. He has the power, shots and, so far, the kind of competitive capability to challenge the best. Only time will measure his development.

    Wawrinka is by no means a fluke for the Australian Open and Monte Carlo Masters titles he won this year, but he's not a lock to go deep in every tournament the way we've seen the Big Three so often accomplish over the past decade. He will need to shore up his big-match intensity for the early rounds, play with reckless control and put himself in more positions to keep bidding for final-weekend trophies.

    Madrid was a setback not a final analysis. Rome will be a more important tune-up for Wawrinka in order to keep the good feelings alive for a run at the French Open title.

Winner: Roger Federer

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Meanwhile, the other Swiss dropped Madrid to be present for the birth of his second set of twins. This is certainly the biggest prize of the week for Roger Federer, but it's good news for tennis fans as well.

    Federer's agent Tony Godsick announced on ATP World Tour that the Swiss champion will play in the French Open. He might even arrive at Rome and play in the Italian Open.

    In theory, Federer should arrive fresh and ready to compete at the French Open, though who knows how many sleep-interrupted nights could dip into his reserve. Two years ago, The New York Times noted that Federer wants 10 hours of sleep a night, if possible:

    I did sleep in the last couple of days. For me that’s a big part of the puzzle: to be coming rested into these tournaments. There’s nothing worse than feeling great for 90 percent of the time but then not when it counts the most—the last 10 percent when you’re like, Ugh. I’m exhausted

    Of course Federer will need to be at his most energetic to win best-of-five matches at the French Open with his familiar rivals and a growing legion of dangerous players. At least we know that he will be playing at Roland Garros. The tennis forecasts regarding his chances of a second Musketeers Cup can continue.

    Let's start the bidding with his odds at 20-1. Any takers?

Loser: Andre Agassi's GOAT Comments

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    Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

    Former star tennis champions cannot seem to help themselves. Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi have all chimed in at one time or another about trying to identify the Greatest Player of All Time (GOAT). And, of course, they have subsequently shifted their positions often enough.

    Agassi, who has once called Roger Federer the greatest, switched his vote more publicly by proclaiming Rafael Nadal the greatest, according to ESPN, which cited Agassi's interview with the Singapore newspaper Straits Times: "I'd put Nadal No. 1, Federer No. 2. It's just remarkable to me what he has done, and he has done it all during Federer's prime."

    Maybe Agassi is fully aware that his opinions with such a combustible topic will go viral. Was it too much to resist that his words would be examined anywhere from the Far East to Basel, and from Mallorca to Las Vegas? But Agassi is ignoring one simple but powerful truth:

    There is no such thing as one GOAT player.

    This cannot be measured across generations, through numbers of championships or any other "objective" or subjective means. Agassi's GOAT comments are irrelevant and inaccurate. Has Nadal accomplished "all during Federer's prime"? Many tennis observers just might argue that Federer's prime ended sometime in 2010, if not sooner.

    The more curious comments are Agassi's rationale for choosing Nadal, and it regards what the majority of tennis media members have long proclaimed: there are stronger and weaker eras in tennis. Again, his comments via ESPN:

    Nadal had to deal with Federer, [Novak] Djokovic[Andy] Murray in the golden age of tennis. He has done what he has done, and he's not done yet."

    OK, there are certainly stronger and weaker periods in tennis' Open Era, and Agassi's comment is no revelation. But how do we really weigh this when we determine numbers and titles? The "Nadal Prime era" might be stronger than the "Federer Prime era," but it does little to determine who the better player is. It's apples and oranges.

    And that's another problem. Numbers, dominance, head-to-head play and the eye test can frame the evidence any way that we like. Sure it's a lot of fun, and we will undoubtedly continue (and write about) these conversations month by month as the top stars continue their careers.

    Agassi is welcome to his opinion, but would it have been too much for him to add at least one original idea to this bottomless debate? Instead, he recycled the same old arguments, contributing nothing but his name. We will recycle our Burnt Bagel award just for him.

    Maybe Agassi just needed a little press. He got it.

Winner: Maria Sharapova

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    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

    The more injury-riddled Serena Williams gets, the more inspired Maria Sharapova seems to play. Coincidence? Whatever the case, Sharapova is streaking along on clay, having now won 46 of 49 matches on this surface since 2011. Her latest title capped off another impressive comeback, turning a shaky tide into a powerful onslaught, 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 over young Simona Halep.

    Maybe it’s her sheer determination against the non-Serena world of the WTA, but Sharapova has made a career out of hitting hard and harder. She will either hammer her opponent into submission or go down with erroneous swinging. She's not going to cheat herself.

    In the first set, she was outmatched playing Halep’s style of match. There were only a handful of winners (4-3 Sharapova-Halep) and several more unforced errors (15-5 Sharapova-Halep), according to WTA Tennis.

    Halep is a tough defender and a conservative but opportunistic shotmaker. She is defeating most of the WTA tour with more solid tennis and has shown a lot of tenacity in bouncing back after dropping sets. She has grown her mental toughness in rising to No. 5 in the world. Sharapova had to raise her game.

    Once Sharapova cleaned up the errors in her go-for-broke slugging, she forced Halep to retreat. Her shots had depth and purpose. It was similar to the way she bullied Li Na and Agnieska Radwanska in the four previous sets. She had to play her A-game to pull away.

    Now, with Serena Williams ailing, Sharapova may be the favorite for the French Open title. She just vanquished three of her primary contenders, at times fighting through lackluster periods before pouring it on. It’s the kind of message that can intimidate her opponents in big matches.

    In just a few weeks, Sharapova has turned many doubts into answers. She was persistent, dominant and a cut above the rest. She is the clear-cut winner for our Golden Breadstick.

Loser: Serena Williams

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    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

    Very few players have stopped Serena Williams in her great career. Right now, the World No. 1 is finding that her most difficult opponent may be Father Time.

    The 32-year-old Williams made the decision to rest for a few weeks following her early loss at Charleston's Family Circle Cup. She has battled nagging injuries since the Australian Open, which has compromised her best tennis. Now she has a left thigh injury that has been heavily wrapped since her first round victory over Belinda Bencic.

    After playing through pain, Serena was unable to compete in the quarterfinals. She gave Petra Kvitova a walkover and expressed her dismay in ESPN:

    It started to get better but, most importantly right now, I just need some time to rest and recover. It's beyond words. It's so frustrating. This is not the way I wanted this week to end.

    Though Williams plans to play at Rome and the French Open, the injury could be a major factor in her quest to defend these titles. Clay requires top-notch leg power and stamina, and Williams will need to be at her best to stave off her younger challengers.

    The balance of power in the WTA could be shifting, but for now Williams has a sizable lead in the rankings.

Winner: Kei Nishikori

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    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

    There are times that Kei Nishikori looks like the second coming of Novak Djokovic. He is quick and has the defensive capabilities to track down almost any shot on clay. And now his offensive punch is becoming a weapon.

    Leading 6-2, 4-2, Nishikori was able to take away time from Nadal in two major ways. He took the ball early and carved out several big angles that had Nadal racing to defend. With his improved power (and new racket), Nishikori had Nadal reacting rather than dictating.

    We will never know if Nishikori could have finished off the match had he not hurt his back serving at 4-3 in the second set. The Japanese star can feel confident, knowing that he pushed the clay king around in his own backyard. Though disappointed, his comments to ATP World Tour were laced with optimism:

    It's going to be very exciting at [Roland Garros] because I've never feel like this on clay. I'm very confident of whatever I hit going for winners. I can hit from either side - forehand or backhand - so it's a very good feeling that I have on clay right now.

    Going forward, Nishikori will need to be healthy. He has a history of physical breakdowns, most of them minor but enough to question his stamina for Rome and best-of-five matches at Roland Garros. What can we expect from his recovery?

    But for most of Sunday’s final, Nishikori was the best player in the world. It’s just never easy to close out Nadal, and he will need to be in peak condition. If so, perhaps he can become a Grand Slam contender, as some writers are beginning to suggest.

Loser: Andy Murray

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    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

    The rumblings about Andy Murray have become louder. Maybe this is exaggerated as he continues to take his lumps on clay. He was whitewashed by Santiago Giraldo in his second match at Madrid. It may be that his back will need more gradual healing, but it's clear that the more aggressive Andy Murray has retreated more to his counterpunching tendencies.

    Right now Murray is distracted in his search for a new coach. It's an almost circus-like affair under the scrutiny of the British media, and the sideshow does not come with peanuts or popcorn. ESPN UK reported that Murray is now feeling the pressure to find a new coach:

    My coach is missing. That's quite a big part of my team. I'll take the next couple of days to think about the coaching situation. I want to try to get someone in soon.

    Meanwhile the most important part of the tennis season, especially in Europe, is getting ready for the French Open and Wimbledon. Should he look for someone to help him conquer clay?

    John McEnroe wouldn't be able to help here, but he could certainly qualify as being strong-willed and grabbing Murray's ear. Besides, it's unlikely McEnroe would give up his TV gig and try to follow rival Ivan Lendl in coaching Murray. It would be a tough act to follow.

    Maybe a more proven veteran coach like Paul Annacone or Darren Cahill would better help take Murray's existing skill set and help him become more aggressive. Annacone certainly had success with Sampras and Federer, helping them economize their attack by playing more aggressive percentages. And Murray could always use help with his second serve.

    Until he finds the right coach, Murray is a rudderless skiff adrift in the tempests of the sea. And next week's draw at Rome already has him pegged at a possible quarterfinals meeting with Rafael Nadal.

Winner: Rafael Nadal

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    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

    Fortunes turned in another big match for Rafael Nadal in the Spaniard’s 2-6, 6-4, 3-0 win over Kei Nishikori. The Japanese star had to retire with a bad back, which clearly led the way for Nadal’s comeback victory. In the end, Nadal was the beneficiary in his record-setting 27th Masters 1000 title.

    Tennis fans might look at this as quasi-retribution for Nadal’s back injury at the Australian Open, but the only similarity was that Nadal trailed in both contests one set and one break. He was dominated by both Stanislas Wawrinka and Nishikori in these respective matches. How much Nadal was hurting at Australia before the match is unknown, but he was clearly finished when the back became worse. At Madrid, Nishikori’s injury opened the door for Nadal.

    Nadal deserves credit for hanging in the match and breaking through in the middle set's eighth game with a hard-fought point at 15-30. His forehand suddenly found its powerful range and forced Nishikori into more taxing defense. The key moment came when Nishikori stepped and twisted his weight in an awkward manner, likely exacerbating the back pain he had already been enduring.

    From there, the Spanish crowd and Nadal’s own belief multiplied, and he finished off the title as we’ve seen him often do in his career.

    Afterward, Nadal’s coach, Uncle Toni, claimed his nephew was lucky, telling Antenna 3 TV, via SI.com:

    We don't deserve the victory, (Nishikori) deserves it, he played better than us the whole time. We had a lot of luck today. We didn't really come back, he was hurt.

    The good news for Nadal was how he persevered through a week when other players were dropping. He only lost one set and looked his usual self in destroying Tomas Berdych. He is 30-5 in 2014, and he now leads the Race to London. Not bad considering the many ways he has been scrutinized.

    But Nadal still has issues with his forehand and staving off aggressive, attacking players. His forehand has been limp and has left more balls floating in the middle of the court. Nishikori teed off on many of these to control the match. Before his injury, the Japanese lightweight had hit his forehand at an average of 129 kph. Nadal’s forehand averaged only 114 kph, according to ESPN's telecast of the final.

    The most important thing for Nadal is that he was able to claim a big title and gain more belief. He will also assuredly hold onto his No. 1 ranking for another week and earn the top seed for the French Open.

    Nadal is not a locked-down favorite but still must be considered the front-runner at Rome and Paris in an unpredictable year.

Loser: Rome Retro Look at 2003

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    Getty Images/Getty Images

    Maybe tennis fans should be happy for Felix Mantilla's greatest victory. After all the 28-year-old journeyman defeated young Roger Federer for the Rome final 7-5, 6-2, 7-6(10). It was his only Masters 1000 title.

    Keep in mind that this was not yet the great Roger Federer, and that his first Grand Slam title had not yet poked above the horizon. But considering that Federer has never won the Rome title, this one has to feel as if it were a lost opportunity, maybe the way it felt for Andre Agassi losing to Andres Gomez in the 1990 French Open finals.

    Does the loss now loom larger for Federer years later, or is it just the reality that nobody can win them all?

    On a positive note, the Mantilla loss might have been another jolt for Federer in getting started. He lost at Hamburg and the French Open first round but won Halle and Wimbledon. The Federer Express was launched.

    Federer would then run into Rafael Nadal in 2006, which would prove to be a more agonizing defeat. We will cover more of this in a few days.

Winner: Rome's Draw

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    Michael Regan/Getty Images

    Novak Djokovic is set to play the Italian Open after missing Madrid with a wrist injury. Roger Federer might play. The draw just might be full with the top stars.

    Typically, tennis fans like to scrutinize the tennis draws. There are often imbalances that raise a hue and cry about why one or two players have an easy or difficult quarter to the final weekend. There are almost always unforeseen surprises that tend to even out. In the end, who can really dispute the crowned champion?

    But this time, Rome's draw is about as balanced as possible. The four top players all have relatively straightforward draws. There are challenges, but nothing that really deserves a complaint.

    Rafael Nadal's top quarter could see Andy Murray, but don't bet on it. His potential semifinal could pit him against Stanislas Wawrinka.

    Wawrinka has a nice route to the semifinals if he can survive early-round ousters and either Tomas Berdych or Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals.

    Federer's quarter could see him play mercurial clay-court specialist Fabio Fognini, followed by "serveborg" Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals. Then a possible match with Djokovic, which is becoming routine in 2014.

    Djokovic's biggest concern will be his own wrist, but Tommy Roberedo and David Ferrer are not bad possibilities for the third round and quarterfinals respectively. And if Kei Nishikori can keep up his energy and success, he might be the quarterfinalist.

    Most observers will make Nadal the favorite, but it may be just as accurate to throw a dart at the bracket.