Pain in Spain: Williams Sisters leave Madrid in disarray

Madrid Open
By Matthew Zemek, May 13th, 2009

The biggest off-the-court story of the week in professional tennis has been the suspension of Frenchman Richard Gasquet for failing a drug test. On the court, the WTA’s Williams sisters have stolen the headlines in their sport’s biggest new event… just not in the way they expected.

Tennis is greeting an unseen horizon this week, as the WTA and ATP tours have converged in Madrid-historically a site of late-season indoor tournaments-for the first-ever Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open, a dual-gender clay event which rates as the final significant tuneup for the upcoming French Open, and replaces-for the men-the Hamburg (Germany) Masters tournament that previously occupied this stretch of the European claycourt season. Any elite player in search of Roland Garros glory wants to produce a solid tournament in the Spanish capital, so that match toughness won’t become a deficiency in the second Grand Slam event of the year, which begins on May 24 in Paris.

Given the new landscape of the tennis calendar-and the importance of this newly-christened Madrid event-it’s fair to say that after two days of play in Spain, Serena and Venus Williams find themselves in deep trouble on the terre battue of Europe. One day after Serena withdrew from Madrid due to an aggravated knee injury suffered midway through a round-of-32 match against Francesca Schiavone, big sister Venus tumbled out of the tournament in her first match on Spanish clay. The elder Williams fell to 24th-ranked Russian Alysa Kleybanova, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, in a battle that lasted 2 hours and 12 minutes.

It’s worth noting that in the early part of this soon-to-end decade, tennis’s best-known and most accomplished siblings were so good that their limitations on clay didn’t really matter that much. Serena won the 2002 French Open by defeating Venus in the final; from 2000 through 2004, the Williamses-in a combined 10 French Open appearances-reached the quarterfinals or better on seven separate occasions. For chronically clay-adverse Americans, such an achievement is quite impressive. While it’s true that Venus has never won a French Open championship, and that Serena never claimed another trophy in Paris, the utter lack of American excellence on red clay makes the Williams siblings stand out in a comparative sense.

Now, however, a notable if somewhat modest record of accomplishment on crushed red brick has now become… well… crushed. Serena has vowed that she’ll be able to rehab her knee injury in time for the French, but given the unique movements required by the surface, it’s extremely hard to expect Serena to find the consistency and confidence needed to perform well at Roland Garros. A round-of-16 showing would represent a tremendous achievement for the 10-time Grand Slam champion.

For Venus, the outlook is just as bad-not because of an injury, but because the 28-year-old just can’t command the court against opponents who would easily wilt on Wimbledon grass or American hardcourts. Tuesday’s match against Kleybanova showed why.

On the lawns of suburban London or on the cement of New York, Venus Ebony Star Williams would reside in a comfort zone and use her long, easy strides to cover the court with grace while blasting the ball past an unsettled opponent. On clay, however, those advantages-physical, tactical and mental-all evaporate for Venus, who is no longer good enough to impose her will on anyone she sees across the net. Kleybanova dictated the majority of rallies in this Tuesday tilt, running Venus around the court and gaining leverage in a hard-fought third set that was decided in the twelfth game. It’s to her great credit that Venus battled deep into the night in Madrid, but the fact that the 7-time Grand Slam champion couldn’t close down Kleybanova, a 19-year-old Russian who entered this match with nine tour losses in 2009, speaks to the uniqueness of the surface that treats Europeans kindly… and leaves Americans-even the conquering sisters from the hardcourts of Compton, California-in the dust of the red dirt.

The French Open might be a wide-open affair on the women’s side of the draw (more will be said when the tournament approaches), but one thing’s pretty certain at this point in time: The Williamses won’t be on the list of favorites-or even upper-tier contenders-when Roland Garros opens its doors.


Madrid Open ATP Update: Federer moves one step closer to No. 2 seed for upcoming French Open

The biggest storyline of the men’s portion of the Madrid Open concerns Roger Federer’s battle with new No. 3 Andy Murray for the all-important second seed at the French Open. Murray came to Spain trailing Federer by 1,180 rankings points for the No. 2 ranking on the ATP Tour, which gave the Scot a small window of opportunity to vault to the bottom half of the draw in Paris, and avoid facing Rafael Nadal until the final of the year’s second slam.

The points for Madrid are not being reassigned relative to last year’s Madrid Masters, an indoor hardcourt event played in October. Point allocations will instead be based on results from last year’s Hamburg Masters, a familiar tour event that was downgraded to a lower-tier, post-French Open event by the ATP. (The organizers of the Hamburg tournment filed a lawsuit last year against the ATP to counter the move, but the ATP won in the courtroom, with the United States Court of Appeals ruling that the ATP’s move did not violate anti-trust monopoly laws.) In last year’s Hamburg event, Federer reached the final-good for 700 points-while Murray lost in the round of 16, which earned the Scot 150 points. The numbers being what they are, the bottom line in Madrid is that Federer needs to pick up a couple of wins in order to feel reasonably safe, while Murray must win the whole tournament-not just reach the final-in order to have a strong chance of somersaulting past the Swiss star.

On Tuesday, then, the somewhat frail Federer-a regular loser to Murray and also Novak Djokovic in late-round tournament matches this season-scored an important victory in the round of 32. Federer dispatched Sweden’s Robin Soderling, 6-1, 7-5, to advance to the round of 16 against James Blake or Ivo Karlovic. Murray also prevailed in his first match on Spanish clay, 7-6 (9), 6-4 over Italy’s Simone Bolelli, but with Federer avoiding an early stumble, the Swiss can-with two more match wins at The Magic Box tennis complex-ensure a minimal point loss from Hamburg (at the very least), and thereby force Murray to run the table the rest of the week.


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