There’s something decidedly out of kilter with the final clay Masters of the year.
Yes, it’s a harder and slightly faster court than almost anywhere else on the red stuff. And yes, the surface seems grittier and more slippery than the fine surface of a Monte Carlo or a Rome.
The altitude, too, adds its own problems, with balls flying a little more, and the air just a fraction thinner for the demanding lungs of the players working flat out this week in Madrid.
But the atmosphere is also rather different: the warm and gentle notes we’ve grown used to in the foregoing clay venues are simply not here.
There’s a harshness about it, and a discord in the color, the sound, the dimensions.
The court surfaces are a bit too orange, a bit too reminiscent of builders’ sand rather than the softer red of Italian roof tiles.
The digital advertising displays that border the court have a persistent moiré effect on the viewer, vibrating and trembling behind the players.
And not for Madrid the greens and reds of the Mediterranean, nor even the deep sea blue of Barcelona. It’s a chilly ice blue, backed by ranks of steel grey boxes that look like Meccano containers for spectators who have paid maximum money for prime position.
The structure itself, determined to impose the venue’s name on the players, is angular, rectangular, with not a curve in sight. It is, after all, called the Magic Box. But the harshness of its planes and its materials, and its closed-in design, produce a cold echo rather than a warm reverberation. It sounds like an indoor arena. It sounds almost, in fact, like an indoor swimming pool.
Yet it suffers from the curses of the outdoors: gusty winds, harsh shadows—made even worse by the high, boxy walls and overhangs—and blinding sun when the chilly air that currently swathes Europe gives way to some summer warmth.
Fortunately, on court and in play, things run a little more according to the script.
The in-form clay-courters such as David Ferrer, Stanislas Wawrinka, Juan Monaco and Nicolas Almagro, made easy progress through their first rounds.
Ernests Gulbis continued to grow in stature against a classy Albert Montanes, still confident and still hitting hard after his Estoril triumph.
The Spaniard ran out of legs and became progressively impeded by a groin injury. On a cold afternoon, in front of a thin crowd, and through a long injury break, Gulbis kept his cool—just one racket consigned to the kit bag—and ran out an easy winner in straight sets.
He then ran out a winner in the post-match interview. Asked if he was pleased, despite losing, with his outstanding performance against Rafael Nadal in Rome, he said simply “No,” then cracked into a smile. “I want to win. It’s no good to play beautiful and lose. I’d rather play ugly and win.”
And about the conditions in Madrid, well he’d only just started to get used to the “rocky slopes,” but he hoped to carry on winning.
Who knew he would grow into his personality as entertainingly as he’s growing into his tennis?
Also back into the groove—apparently—was Roger Federer. So few games on clay, so many questions and expectations coming to Madrid as the title-holder. But he took to the Manolo Santana court pretty much as he left it in 2009.
The first serve was back to nearly 70 percent, the drop shot was elegant, accurate, and vicious, one particular lob was of jaw-dropping brilliance, and when push came to shove in the second set tie-breaker, at 3-3, he made a return of serve for an outright winner that must have wrenched out Benjamin Becker’s heart.
The German had upped his serve to 75 percent and produced seven aces in the second set—and it was a very powerful, attacking set—but that shot finished him off.
Mikhail Youzhny, fresh from beating Marin Cilic for his first title of the year out of three finals, took a while to get his wheels running, but eventually steam-rollered Lukas Lacko 6-1 in the final set.
The Russian’s free-flowing game, and the one-handed backhand in particular, is always a joy to watch. His next match, against Gulbis, could be the standout match of the third round. The Russian is still working his way, slowly, towards that top 10, while Gulbis is heading into a seeded ranking position for Roland Garros. It’s all to play for.
They find themselves in a very interesting quarter of the draw. Local boy Feliciano Lopez will give Andy Roddick his first match on clay for the privilege of playing Youzhny or Gulbis. The winner will then, as likely as not, play Federer. He, though, may first have to beat his compatriot Wawrinka.
There was more exuberant talent on show, and more progress, for Marcos Baghdatis, though he’ll struggle against a confident Ferrer in the next round.
The other showstopper, David Nalbandian, who is awaited eagerly whenever he steps onto court, pulled out of his first round match, and then saw his scheduled opponent, Tomas Berdych, follow him out of the door.
So it was left to two lucky losers, all the way from the States, to fill the shoes of what promised to be a showcase event.
Mardy Fish and Michael Russell did their best on a chilly night when even the ball girls were zipped to the neck in their tracky tops, but the cold, echoing show court in this out-of-the-ordinary venue struggled to light up. Fish took the honors in well under two hours.
Several of the big guns have still to get under way. Andy Murray will be hoping for a positive start to buoy up a game that has lately gone adrift.
Cilic also has a few points to prove after a storming first month of 2010 went a little awry, though he took a few good scalps in Munich last week.
Robin Soderling has made his usual quiet and steady progress through a minimal schedule, and could reasonably target a quarterfinal meeting with the in-form local favorite, Fernando Verdasco, already comfortably through to the third round.
Last but not least, we have the pleasure of Nadal. He’s got that old gleam back in the eye and the flash in his smile. He’s more rested this year than when he fell to Federer here at last year. Most significant of all, his knees seem to be as sound as bell.
Can the likes of John Isner, or the flamboyant Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Gael Monfils prevent his progress to the semifinals? Even the vagaries of the Magic Box seem unlikely to pull off that trick.