And who could have predicted that it would, as it was 12 months ago, be in the final of the last clay Masters of the year, in Madrid?
The balance of power as they entered the home straight this year has, though, looked a little different.
2009 began with Nadal as world No. 1, winner of the Australian Slam, and dominant through the clay season. But by the time he reached Madrid, his months without a break had wreaked havoc with his knees and he was soon forced off the tour to recuperate.
This year, he was short of his best form in Melbourne. But with the clay came the Rafa of old. He won every tournament he entered, and this time he paced himself so that he looked, if anything, stronger and fitter with each passing week.
So the Nadal in Madrid 2010 was a stronger animal than the one Federer dominated in 2009, while the Federer on the other side of the net was only just getting into his stride following a month off the tour with illness.
Add in the extra factors of Andre Agassi’s Masters record, and the imminent French Open title to fight over, and this was destined to be a great occasion. It saw Nadal avenge his loss of 2009, and take the outright record for Masters titles: 18. And he is still just 23.
Looking beyond the Rafa-and-Roger showdown, the Spanish armada once more laid down its marker, as it has done throughout the spring.
Three of the four finalists in Madrid were Spanish, as were six of the last 16. And that’s without their fourth man Juan Carlos Ferrero and their fifth Tommy Robredo, both missing with injury.
So, not surprisingly, Federer is the only non-Spaniard in the top five this week. Who’ll give me odds against the Spanish reign continuing in Paris? I thought not.
The Top 10
1. Rafael Nadal (Last Power Ranking: 1; ATP Ranking: 2)
Last Four Tournaments: Madrid [Winner]; Rome [Winner]; Monte Carlo [Winner]; Miami [Semifinals].
Power Ranking Points: 1585
What more is there to say about Nadal’s prowess on clay? Winner of all three clay Masters trophies in a single season—the first ever to do so—he was largely untroubled on his way to the final, dropping just one set. He now also reclaims his No. 2 ranking ahead of a sick Novak Djokovic.
Nadal had deliberately slimmed down his schedule this year, dropping Rotterdam and Barcelona, and the result was a fresher, fitter Nadal at the business end of the clay season.
He is now moving superbly, his serve, volley, drop shot, and sliced backhand have developed apace, and the old penetration that went AWOL as he worked his way back into fitness has returned to his forehand with a vengeance.
He clearly has his eye firmly on that French title, and there are few out there with the tools to deny him. In fact, the chief suspects are chasing his tail in these power rankings. In his present form and with his current mindset, his tail is likely to be all they will see.
2. David Ferrer (Last Power Ranking: 3; ATP Ranking: 11)
Last Four Tournaments: Madrid [Semifinals]; Rome [Finals]; Barcelona [Semifinals]; Monte Carlo [Semifinals].
Power Ranking Points: 677
Roadrunner personified, the bustling Ferrer continued his outstanding run with both quality and consistency. In six consecutive clay tournaments, he hasn’t finished less than a semifinalist, has reached three finals, and taken one title. That’s some record.
Prior to that, the Ferrer story was one of struggling form and poor results through 2009 and the start of 2010. With rumors that he was contemplating retirement after this year, there has come, it seems, a less inhibited game and more freedom of expression.
He also seems to have added a little more variety, more slice, more angle to his shots, and has developed a slightly bigger serve: no mean feat for a man of 5’ 9”. As a result, he is showing the kind of focus that comes from renewed self-belief.
Ferrer has the wind in his sails. He pushed Federer to a deciding set in Madrid, and he tore Andy Murray’s revitalised game apart.
So make no mistake, Ferrer is a man on a mission. He’s knocking on the door of the top 10 once more, and he will be in the mix right up to the final stages in Roland Garros.
3. Roger Federer (Last Power Ranking: OLI; ATP Ranking: 1)
Last Four Tournaments: Madrid [Final]; Estoril [Semifinals]; Rome [R32]; Miami [R16].
Power Ranking Points: 661
Although Federer made an earlier exit in Estoril than he may have liked, and suffered another ‘first ever’ moment in losing to Albert Montanes, he did get a little more match time under his feet.
So at last, in Madrid, the sleeping giant started to awake. And he needed to, in this, his last chance to get the juices flowing prior to Roland Garros.
The Madrid conditions, a bit quicker than the other clay events, helped him get the timing and placement fine-tuned, and the rest of the game fell into place. The backhand, in particular, flowed both cross-court and down the line.
He was particularly impressive in avenging his Rome defeat over Ernests Gulbis. Against Ferrer, he was guilty of a lapse in concentration in the second set, but an occasionally tetchy Federer brought his focus back under control for a workmanlike final set against the inspired Spaniard.
In reaching the final, Federer equalled the Agassi record of 209 match wins in Masters events. And once again, the Federer timing, preparation, and self belief have him peaking just ahead of a Grand Slam.
At Roland Garros this time, however, he will ultimately have to contend with a Nadal at the very top of his game. It will take something exceptional, even by Federer’s standards, to win the French title again.
4. Fernando Verdasco (Last Power Ranking: 2; ATP Ranking: 9)
Last Four Tournaments: Madrid [R16]; Rome [Semifinals]; Barcelona [Winner]; Monte Carlo [Finals].
Power Ranking Points: 455
In his home tournament, Verdasco was hugely disappointed to exit so early, but the chips were down once he took a medical time out for his right ankle after the first set against Jurgen Melzer.
Verdasco has had a good clay season, though, with wins over Novak Djokovic, Marin Cilic, Robin Soderling, and Ferrer, the Barcelona title, and his first Masters final in Monte Carlo.
Madrid was his ninth tournament since the Australian Open (as a comparison, it was only Federer’s and Nadal’s fifth, Murray’s sixth, Soderling’s seventh). Verdasco plays a physical power game, and is still honing his base-line skills and tactical nous, but he also needs to listen to his body.
He’s had niggling wrist and ankle problems before, and may need to take leaf out of Nadal’s book and aim for more consistent results from fewer events. Why, for example, is he slated to play in Nice this week?
He will be another Spaniard in the mix in the second week at Roland Garros, as long as that ankle is in full working order. Anything less than perfect physical shape, though, and he will struggle to make it through the gruelling, best-of-five format.
5. Nicolas Almagro (Last Power Ranking: NR; ATP Ranking: 22)
Last Four Tournaments: Madrid [Semifinals]; Munich [Quarterfinals]; Rome [R32]; Barcelona [R16].
Power Ranking Points: 409
The third Spanish string in the Madrid semis was the hugely gifted Almagro, who beat Soderling in straight sets along the way.
He has tested Nadal in their hard court meetings, most recently the Paris Masters where he eventually lost to Nadal 7-5 in the final set. He pushed Nadal again in Madrid, being only the second man to take a set off him in the whole clay season.
The Almagro temperament is a problem, though, and he gets into destructive spirals of anger with himself and, less likeably, everything else on the court: umpire, line-judges, crowd, and opponent.
He did it in Rome and he did it again in Madrid. With the crowd swinging heavily in support of Nadal, Almagro’s goose was cooked.
It’s a pity. He has an attractive and penetrating game, and his single-handed backhand is one of the joys of the current tour. He is still only 24 but needs to look at compatriots Nadal and Verdasco to pick up tips on channelling his passion more constructively. Then he might build yet further on his rise of 13 places in the rankings this week.
6. Ernests Gulbis (Last Power Ranking: 4; ATP Ranking: 27)
Last Four Tournaments: Madrid [Quarterfinals]; Rome [Semifinals]; Barcelona [Quarterfinals]; Monte Carlo [R32].
Power Ranking Points: 332
Gulbis’s talent does, at last, seem to be coming to fruition. It’s easy to forget he’s still just 21, so long has the tour been expecting him to flower.
Now, apparently, with a lot of hard work, a bit more maturity, and rather more concentration, he has started to notch up the wins.
First it was on the hard courts of Memphis (semifinals), and Delray Beach (his first title), then it started to work on clay, too. He shocked Federer in Rome and nearly did the same to Nadal.
Notable scalps in Madrid included, Mikhail Youzhny, Feliciano Lopez, and Estoril winner Montanes, all in straight sets. Federer got the better of him this week, but not before the Latvian took a one-set lead.
There are still signs of frustration when he does not live up to his own high expectations. It’s a transition that Federer himself had to make: pulling a richness of gifts under control before they can be juggled into match-winning tactics.
He’s getting there, and will be rewarded with a seeding in Roland Garros. No one will want to see Gulbis lurking in their quarter of the draw.
7. Andy Roddick (Last Power Ranking: 7; ATP Ranking: 8)
Last Four Tournaments: Miami [Winner]; Indian Wells [Finals]; Memphis [Quarterfinals]; San Jose [Finals]
Power Ranking Points: 227
Talk about hot and cold. Roddick had a sizzling hard-court season, culminating in his first Masters title since 2006. But since Miami, he has not played a match.
So his preparation for Roland Garros is stone cold, with not a single game on the red stuff. He was slated to play in Madrid but was one of many players to withdraw with illness or injury.
The French Open rarely features high on the Roddick radar, and this year will be no different. Presumably he will burst back onto the scene in time for a new assault on Wimbledon.
8. Stanislas Wawrinka (Last Power Ranking: 9; ATP Ranking: 24)
Last Four Tournaments: Madrid [R16]; Belgrade [Semifinals]; Rome [Quarterfinals]; Monte Carlo [R16].
Power Ranking Points: 213
It’s been another solid couple of weeks on clay for Wawrinka, and might have been better had he not met his compatriot Federer at the very moment the No. 1 started to hit his stride.
Theirs was a one-sided affair, giving Wawrinka little chance to show the quality of play he produced in Rome.
So his hold on the rankings is slipping through the 20s. He can be a danger to most players on clay on his day, but without more consistency, he is unlikely to trouble the second week of Roland Garros too much.
9. Robin Soderling (Last Power Ranking: 5; ATP Ranking: 7)
Last Four Tournaments: Madrid [R32]; Rome [R16]; Barcelona [Finals]; Miami [Semifinals].
Power Ranking Points: 166
Soderling continues to blow hot and cold, following a finals finish in Barcelona with relatively early exits both in Rome and Madrid. In the latter, he fell in his first match to an in-form Almagro.
That’s not the ideal preparation for Roland Garros, where he blew the tournament apart last year. Some time on clay in Nice this week will help him prepare a little better.
He’s a dangerous man when he’s confident, and after his finals finish in Paris last year, he will be confident. And without big names likes Juan Martin Del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko in the mix, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be there in the latter stages again.
10. Ivan Ljubicic (Last Power Ranking: 10; ATP Ranking: 16)
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [R16]; Monte Carlo [R16]; Miami [R128]; Indian Wells [Winner].
Power Ranking Points: 161
Ljubicic continues to be sidelined by injury after his heart-warming breakthrough at the end of the hard-court season. He withdrew part way through Rome, and pulled out of Estoril and Madrid.
We await news of his status ahead of Paris, but his preparation for Roland Garros has been thin. However, he went out in the first round there last year so, if he’s fit to play, and can reproduce that Indian Wells form, who knows what problems he might create?
Outside Looking In
Novak Djokovic (Last Power Ranking: 6; ATP Ranking: 3)
Power Ranking Points: 156
Djokovic is not having things easy on clay this year. He fell short of his 2009 performance in Rome, and then had to pull out of his quarterfinal match at his home tournament in Belgrade. A Madrid withdrawal followed, citing illness and allergy-related problems.
He will this week concede the No. 2 ranking he’s held since February to Nadal. We still await news of his fitness for Roland Garros. It would be a blow to the French Open to lose yet another top-six seed.
Tomas Berdych (Last Power Ranking: OLI; ATP Ranking: 17)
Power Ranking Points: 141
Berdych maintains a presence in these ranking, just, by virtue of a quarterfinal place in Munich last week. Sadly, he had to withdraw from Madrid with a hip injury. He fell at the first in Roland Garros last year, so may not be too upset if injury prevents him entering the demanding culmination of the clay season.
There will be previews aplenty ahead of the charismatic French Open, and these Power Rankings have suggested a few names that might make the frame in its latter stages:
Nadal —of course; Federer —almost as certainly; Ferrer —a good bet for the semis; Verdasco —another dangerous Spaniard—if he’s 100 percent; Djokovic —if he’s healthy—will also make a mark; Gulbis —a sleeper who, if it all comes together, might shock a few favorites; Soderling —after his powerful run last year.
There are some who have not made these rankings who may still expect to come good in the demanding Grand Slam environment:
Andy Murray , Cilic and, if he is back to fitness, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga .
Some, sadly, will be notable by their absence:
Davydenko , Del Potro , Tommy Haas , and James Blake are definite absentees.
A string of others are yet to declare their fitness:
Ljubicic , Robredo , Ferrero , David Nalbandian , Berdych , Igor Andreev , Philipp Petzschner , Pablo Cuevas , and Janko Tipsaravic . John Isner , too, had arm pain during Madrid.
Has the season ever seen so many question marks so early in the season? The upside of this, though, is that it leaves the draw just that bit more open for lower ranked players to make their mark.
Thanks, as always, to Feng for the Power Ranking concept and the number crunching.