What a Difference a Year Makes: Madrid in Blue vs. Madrid in Red

Should Madrid’s experimentation really have made the ATP see red?

After the outcry caused by the audacious rhapsody in blue last year, the ATP essentially twisted the arm of the Madrid tournament into returning to its red roots.  But did the traditional surface really make a difference in the results of either the men’s or the women’s draw?  An analysis could use multiple angles, of which this article chooses just two.  First, it looks at the upsets of seeds by unseeded players in the first two rounds of Madrid over the last two years, the first on blue clay and the second on red clay.  Second, it looks at who ultimately reached the semifinals in both draws over those years.  This comparison between 2012 and 2013 aims to explore whether the change in surface correlates to significant differences in result patterns.

Of course, any single year can produce a skewed sample, so one could argue that singling out the current edition of Madrid does not fairly represent the overall trends of the event’s history on red clay.  That history remains quite young, however, for this year marks only its fourth on the surface.  And the blue-clay experiment lasted only a single year, so it seems appropriate to compare equal sample sizes highlighted by a comparable group of elite players.

 

Let’s start with the upsets angle, and with the WTA.  (Numbers refer to seeds.)

2012:

Lucie Hradecka d. 3 Petra Kvitova

Sorana Cirstea d. 7 Marion Bartoli

Petra Cetkovska d. 10 Vera Zvonareva

Varvara Lepchenko d. 11 Francesca Schiavone

Roberta Vinci d. 14 Dominika Cibulkova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 15 Jelena Jankovic

Ekaterina Makarova d. 16 Maria Kirilenko

Almost half of the seeds (seven of sixteen) lost in the first or second round, a high number for an event of this quality.  On the other hand, five of the seven came from the 9-16 bracket, and Cirstea knocking off Bartoli on clay does not come as a huge surprise.  The latter has struggled regularly on the surface outside that single Roland Garros semifinal run in 2011, while the former earned her best result of any major with a quarterfinal there in 2009.  Another result that jumps out from this group, the Hradecka-Kvitova match, seems less startling in retrospect with the wild oscillations in Kvitova’s form over the last two years.  Kvitova also has made a habit of faltering against lower-ranked countrywomen, but this match still should raise an eyebrow because she was the defending champion in Madrid and fell to a heavy server, not a clay specialist.

Of the 9-16 upsets, Lepchenko defeating Schiavone surprises the most, and in fact the American ultimately reached the quarterfinals at this event.  That said, Madrid has witnessed other such unexpected results on red clay before, for which one need look no further than Aravane Rezai’s title in 2010.  Lepchenko also went back to work on the Italian battalions here this year, as you’ll see below.  Like Schiavone, Jankovic floundered through much of last season, so one should not read too much into her loss to rising clay talent Suarez Navarro.  Russians Zvonareva and Kirilenko usually have not enjoyed their clay seasons, and Vinci’s victory over Cibulkova looks merely like one clay specialist ousting another.  On the other hand, hindsight may dilute the magnitude of this upset, now that the Italian has risen above the Slovak in the rankings a year later. 

2013:

Ekaterina Makarova d. 3 Victoria Azarenka

Laura Robson d. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska

Madison Keys d. 5 Li Na

Daniela Hantuchova d. 8 Petra Kvitova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 9 Sam Stosur

Yaroslava Shvedova d. 10 Caroline Wozniacki

Svetlana Kuznetsova d. 11 Nadia Petrova

Varvara Lepchenko d. 12 Roberta Vinci

Sabine Lisicki d. 15 Dominika Cibulkova

What comes around goes around for Vinci, it seems, an upset-maker in 2012 and the victim of an upset in 2012.  Kvitova also has found the Magic Box a house of horrors since winning the title here two years ago, her first career loss to Hantuchova this year adding some context to the Hradecka debacle last year.  And there’s just no curbing Lepchenko’s appetite for Italian cuisine in Madrid, while Cibulkova doesn’t seem to enjoy her time here in any color.  The heavy-hitting Lisicki’s upset of her in two tiebreaks suggests the impact of the Madrid altitude on amplifying serves, relevant no matter the surface.

Taking stock of the larger view, the carnage this week was staggering and becomes even more staggering considering the relative consistency that has developed at the top of the WTA over the last eighteen months or so.  Granted, Azarenka just returned from an injury absence and never plays her best on clay, nor does Radwanska.  But one would have expected the latter to win more than four games from a raw Laura Robson, even amid her recent slump, and Makarova did not topple Azarenka based on her superior clay-court expertise.  Madison Keys shares Robson’s and Makarova’s preference for faster surfaces, so her first-round rout of Li Na may have registered the greatest shock of all.  Just two years removed from her Roland Garros title, Li has continued to shine on clay with marquee finals in Rome last year and Stuttgart this year.  Any of those three upsets, though, came as a greater surprise than any of those in 2012.

The remaining upsets of top-10 players, those over Stosur and Wozniacki, spoke more to the recent struggles of both women and came at the hands of two players accomplished on clay.  They don’t add much to the overall picture.

The VerdictBoth years featured plenty of upsets, nearly half of the seeds falling in 2012 and over half of the seeds falling in 2013.  Three of the top ten fell last year and a ghastly six of the top ten this year in an even larger implosion.  Since most of the top women prefer somewhat faster surfaces to red clay anyway, that difference might actually demonstrate a point that the blue clay’s detractors cited:  the blue played more like other blue courts (e.g., hard courts) than like other clay courts.  Even so, seeing the best in the game play their best may matter more than any other goal, and last year offered more in that regard than this year did.

Let’s next see how the men fared in the upset category.

2012:

Marin Cilic d. 8 John Isner

Jurgen Melzer d. 13 Feliciano Lopez

Not much to see here, just two upsets before the final sixteen and both of men whom one would expect to exit early on clay.  In fact, these results counter perceptions of the blue clay as a much faster surface than the red, which the tournament’s later rounds would encourage.  Losses by Isner and Lopez, players built around explosive serves and short points, surprised much less than the upsets in the WTA draw in the same year.  I found the dearth of upsets by non-seeds in the ATP draw quite surprising, in retrospect, for it seemed amid the general tumult at the time that many more fell in the early rounds.

 2013:

Grigor Dimitrov d. 1 Novak Djokovic

Daniel Gimeno-Traver d. 8 Richard Gasquet

Juan Monaco d. 9 Janko Tipsarevic

Pablo Andujar d. 10 Marin Cilic

Mikhail Youzhny d. 11 Nicolas Almagro

Fernando Verdasco d. 12 Milos Raonic

In contrast to the previous year, the 2013 draw harvested a plentiful crop of upsets, including three members of the top ten.  The name looming above the list, of course, belongs to one of the two superstars who criticized the blue clay so vociferously.  We never will know how much a lingering ankle injury or the consequent lack of practice contributed to Djokovic’s opening-round loss.  Note, however, that he brought the injury and minimal practice to Monte Carlo two weeks before—and, surviving two early three-setters, ultimately won the title from Nadal.  While his slips, stumbles, and mishits on blue clay showed his discomfort with that surface, Djokovic slipped, stumbled, and mishit plenty of balls across three ragged hours of tennis.  Those parallels supported what some have observed over the last few years:  Madrid’s problems come not from the surface’s color but from its hasty, uneven preparation.

The second-most surprising result in my view came from Youzhny’s victory over Almagro, in which a seeded clay specialist near the top 10 fell to a rapidly fading fast-court specialist twenty slots below him.  That’s exactly the type of result that one might have expected on the blue clay, so its occurrence on the red reminds us that these counterintuitive results can happen there too.  Gasquet’s early loss also stands out (to a lesser extent) because of his past successes on clay and overall consistency in 2012-13.  All the same, Gimeno-Traver became the seventh player outside the top 30 to defeat the Frenchman since the US Open, showing that Gasquet remains more vulnerable to upsets than most of the top ten.

The upsets of Tipsarevic, Cilic, and Raonic registered little surprise because all three fell to players with much greater aptitude on clay.  By conquering the latter two, Andujar and Verdasco showed that the altitude perhaps does not offer massive servers as much of an advantage as some had thought.  Despite his top-ten ranking, Tipsarevic has lost to virtually every opponent imaginable this year as his dismal form has dogged him across all surfaces.

The Verdict:  In both quantity and quality, the Madrid men’s draw produced more notable upsets early in the week this year than last year, as did the women’s draw.  However you choose to interpret that difference, it certainly does not suggest that the traditional surface caused a return to normalcy—but quite the opposite.  Nevertheless, some more subtle thinkers might argue that rankings, and thus seedings, reflect a player’s performance on faster surfaces disproportionately compared with performance on clay.  Since the ATP still has plenty of clay specialists who make their living on the surface, the lack of upsets in 2012 ironically may suggest that the blue clay played more like a hard court, as many complained, since the seedings based predominantly on hard-court results dictated outcomes.  Food for thought…

Now let’s switch to the other angle of comparison and compare who reached the semifinals of Madrid in 2012 and 2013, ladies first.

2012:

1 Victoria Azarenka (d. 8 Li Na)

4 Agnieszka Radwanska (d. Varvara Lepchenko)

Lucie Hradecka (d. 5 Samantha Stosur)

9 Serena Williams (d. 2 Maria Sharapova)

To state the obvious, the top half played exactly according to form.  In fact, the only top-eight seed who did not reach the quarterfinals in that half was the aforementioned Bartoli, usually expected to underperform on any sort of clay.  Despite her ninth seed, Serena should be favored over Sharapova on any surface and merely extended her dominance in that rivalry.  Few would have been surprised to see her eliminate the higher-ranked Caroline Wozniacki in a three-setter a round before.  Having lost to Wozniacki in Miami earlier that spring, Serena was not going to let the Dane down her twice.

The only odd name in this lineup does pop the eyeballs a bit, even after we became acquainted with her in the upsets section.  Hradecka delivered the biggest shock there, and she built upon that run with another upset of the then-healthy and somewhat dangerous Stosur in two tense tiebreaks.  The serve-a-thon semifinal in which she battled Serena certainly departed from expectations for a clay match.  On the other hand, a single unseeded semifinalist has burst through the bracket into an otherwise studded lineup at many WTA tournaments over the past few years.  It’s unexpected but no more astonishing than Rezai two years before.

2013:

1 Serena Williams (d. Anabel Medina Garrigues)

8 Sara Errani (d. Ekaterina Makarova)

16 Ana Ivanovic (d. 6 Angelique Kerber)

2 Maria Sharapova (d. Kaia Kanepi)

This lineup makes considerably more sense for a clay tournament than what we saw at the same stage in 2012.  All four of these WTA semifinalists have reached Roland Garros finals, three of them winning the title, so their talents on the surface rise beyond doubt.  The only constant between the two years, Serena, has not shone in Paris for several years but still has accomplished far more there than fellow 2012 semifinalists Azarenka, Radwanska, and Hradecka.  And the narrowness of her victory over Medina Garrigues captured the ability of an unheralded clay specialist to challenge someone of far greater talent here.  The only quarterfinal upset, Ivanovic over Kerber, plays into the theme of surface expertise with a woman whose greatest exploits have come on clay toppling a higher-ranked woman who has built her career on hard courts.

The Verdict:  While the 2012 semifinalists comprised arguably a more accomplished group overall, the 2013 semifinalists more accurately align with expectations for clay.  The transition back to the red thus coincided with arguably more desirable results later in the week after the implosions earlier in the week.  What was lost at the beginning may have been gained at the end.

And now for the ATP comparison. 

2012:

7 Janko Tipsarevic (d. 1 Novak Djokovic)

3 Roger Federer (d. 5 David Ferrer)

10 Juan Martin Del Potro (d. 16 Alexander Dolgopolov)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 15 Fernando Verdasco)

Let’s just go ahead and acknowledge the massive Mallorcan elephant in the room.  Barring injury or its aftereffects, Rafael Nadal never will fail to reach the quarterfinals of a Masters 1000 tournament on clay during his prime without raising questions about the tournament.  It felt especially awkward because Madrid is the most important Spanish tournament, the place where Nadal should have the opportunity to bask in the adulation of his compatriots.  A petulant side less attractive than his usual sportsmanlike self emerged there last year, but one could understand his frustration at the opportunity denied him.

One could make an almost equally compelling argument that Djokovic should reach the semifinals at every clay Masters 1000 event that he enters, again subject to injury and related matters (see this year’s case above).  Or, at least, he should not lose in that situation to Janko Tipsarevic, nobody’s idea of a clay specialist and someone characteristically content to play second fiddle to Nole.  While I hesitate to ever question someone who won a six-hour major final for lack of effort, I felt strongly that Djokovic held back his best in that quarterfinal.  As with Nadal, that attitude did not reflect especially well on him.  As with Nadal, it tarnished the tournament nonetheless.

 

Federer’s eventual victory offered Madrid the best possible resolution under the circumstances, and its top brass must have felt fortunate that he dodged the opening-round bullet of Milos Raonic in a third-set tiebreak.  Without Federer, the weekend designed as the tournament’s climax would have descended into chaos.  Quality players with plenty of accomplishments, Del Potro and Berdych illustrated all too clearly how much faster the blue clay appeared to play than its red cousin.  Their semifinal cost the tournament more of whatever credibility still clung to it, decided as it was by a style of tennis more common on hard courts than clay.  So was the final between Federer and Berdych, despite its entertaining twists and turns.

2013:

15 Stanislas Wawrinka (d. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 3 Andy Murray)

5 Rafael Nadal (d. 4 David Ferrer)

Pablo Andujar (d. 14 Kei Nishikori)

Just looking at the seedings of the survivors, the end of the tournament appears as chaotic as the beginning.  The lower-ranked man won every quarterfinal, and none of the top four seeds reached the semifinals, unusual for a Masters 1000 tournament.  But a closer inspection reveals that each of these results fits with our expectations of how the distinctiveness of red clay affects results.  In all four quarterfinals, the man with superior expertise on the surface prevailed, just as in the 2013 women’s draw.  Granted, Rafa came within two points of defeat against a compatriot whom he long has throttled on this surface, recalling the stunning ambush by Verdasco last year.  Fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar also had struggled to win any matches at all over the last several months, so his sudden semifinal appearance with upsets over two seeded opponents astonishes.

The two non-Spanish semifinalists possess strong credentials on this surface with Wawrinka once coming within a set of the Rome title and Berdych within a set of the Roland Garros final.  Berdych is the only man who reached the Madrid semifinals in both of these years, an intriguing comment on how well his game adapts to various surfaces—or perhaps a comment on how much the altitude assists it.  A slow-court player, Wawrinka showed how the more physical, grinding attributes of a clay specialist’s game can prevail over a mercurial shot-maker like Tsonga.  Last year, that result may well be reversed.

The Verdict:  As with the women’s draw, the men’s draw crystallized late in the week this year into a more characteristic set of semifinalists than what we saw on the blue clay.  Nadal’s appearance in the semifinals backed up his arguments last year about that surface’s flaws, and Wawrinka makes a more credible surprise semifinalist on a slow court than Tipsarevic did.  While the route to this stage earlier in the week was less than ideal, and certainly more volatile than in 2012, the marquee rounds have unfolded along more familiar lines.

***

Two patterns thus emerge from comparisons between the Madrid men’s and women’s draws of the last two years.  The red clay produced more upsets in the first two rounds, and in general upsets of greater significance.  By the semifinals, though, the rubble had settled into a form more recognizable for this season than what the blue clay produced.

As the years unfold, we will observe whether those trends continue, or whether the altitude at this tournament continues to create chaos.  Another possible contributing factor, unrelated to the surface color, will improve in 2014 when the clay becomes permanent in Madrid rather than laid down shortly before the tournament each year.  The slipperiness that has troubled an array of stars during its brief history as a spring event should dwindle after that change, pleasing players and fans alike.

 

 

 

 

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