A postcard from - Madrid Open 2021

High altitude tennis

Buenos días and welcome to Madrid!

Whatever it is that your soul and body desire, you can probably find it here: drinks in the chic barrio of La Latina, bountiful shopping of Malasaña, a hip lunch in the bohemian neighbourhood of Lavapiés. But before you throw yourself into the spiritual and carnal depths of Madrid, be reminded of the city’s rich tennis heritage—it is home to one of the finest clay court tournaments in the world. That’s why we’re here.

While we have already been playing on clay for a few weeks, in many ways Madrid feels like the beginning of the clay swing. Up until now, attendance was optional, and players took that time to find their form and accustom themselves again, as they do every year, with the surface.

With Monte Carlo not having a mandatory player commitment requirement, Madrid kickstarts a busy period—six weeks of almost constant action. From here, we’ll be flying off to Italy for another Masters, Italian Open in Rome, and then back to France for the French Open, the second Slam of the year.

Under the watchful eye of the sexiest tournament director Feliciano López (competing for that title with Miami’s James Blake and Indian Wells’s Tommy Haas), 15 of the top-20 players, plus another 41 from the lower ranks, reported for duty at La Caja Mágica, Madrid’s home ground since 2009.

The notable exception was Novak Djokovic who opted not to defend his 2019 title and instead spent the time preparing for Rome and the French Open.

The Ballad of Daniil Medvedev

Daniil Medvedev’s (🎂 25 · 🇷🇺 2 · 🏆 10) love affair with clay continues to perplex more than Dominic Thiem’s fashion choices.

Following his less-than-kind comments before the Monte Carlo Masters, the cantankerous Russian put his relationship with clay on display—and it’s not a healthy one.

During his second-round match versus Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (🎂 21 · 🇪🇸 48), Medvedev went through a rollercoaster of emotion, loudly announcing “I don’t want to play here on this surface!”, before signing the camera with “Love clay :)” after his eventual 4:6 6:4 6:2 victory.

As in any toxic relationship, the good times didn’t last very long. In the following round, against Cristian Garín (🎂 24 · 🇨🇱 22 · 🏆 5), Medvedev couldn’t find his feet, peppering his game with unforced errors. At 3:2 in the first set, the Russian suffered a nosebleed and required medical attention.

Garín’s solid serve and adventurous shot selection met little resistance from unusually subdued Medvedev—clay blues playing on his mind—and the Chilean took the first set 6:4.

Medvedev dug in and claimed the second set in a tie-break, making it look like he might be on course for a comeback. However, with Garín not losing his spirit and clearly not ready to give up, either, the Russian’s clay misery was further compounded by an argument with a member of the audience. When warned for unsportsmanlike conduct, Medvedev complained to the chair umpire, “I hope they don’t have any money for the next match.”

As it turned out, picking on the audience was all the fight the Russian was ready to show in the third set, losing the match 6:4 6:7[2] 6:1.

Carlos Alcaraz and the Nadal Riddle

How do you eat an elephant? On his 18th birthday, Carlos Alcaraz (🎂 18 · 🇪🇸 120) attempted to solve the riddle. The result? He choked on the trunk.

After handing a swift 6:4 6:0 loss to Adrian Mannarino (🎂 32 · 🇫🇷 36 · 🏆 1) in the first round, Alcaraz was rewarded by getting a chance to face the player he has long been touted to be the latest incarnation of—Rafael Nadal (🎂 34 · 🇪🇸 2 · 🏆 87).

Never meet your heroes, a popular saying goes, much less when the hero is ranked two in the world, plays in front of an adoring, home audience, and on a surface that goes some distance beyond his favourite.

The heavy, and perhaps unfair, billing of being the next Nadal comes on the back of a splendid breakout 2020 season during which the young Spaniard reached 136th place in the ranking—becoming the youngest player in the top-600—and capturing Challenger titles in Trieste, Alicante and Barcelona with a 20-4 record.

Well, how do you eat an elephant? You take it one bite at a time, celebrate small wins, and trust the process. And yet, for all his limitless talent and explosive ability, going up against the relentless force of nature, a raging whirlwind of power, athleticism, and surgical precision topped off with inhuman levels of spin, that is Rafa Nadal, was too much of an ask for Alcaraz.

There is no doubt that, should Carlos Alcaraz continue on his current trajectory, set out by his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, he will eventually ascend into the top-10. But on his first meeting with the man many hope he will emulate, he was served a stark reminder of how difficult the journey is going to be.

R2: 🇪🇸 Rafa Nadal d. 🇪🇸 Carlos Alcaraz - 6:1 6:2

Return of the Prince of Clay

Rejuvenated Dominic Thiem (🎂 27 · 🇦🇹 4 · 🏆 17) returns to tennis after a six-week break.

After back to back defeats in Doha and Dubai in the early rounds, Thiem decided he needed time to recharge.

“I think the pandemic played a little part of it definitely because I think it's mentally a little bit more demanding to be in a bubble, to play in front of empty seats,” Thiem said as quoted by the ATP website.

“But the main reason was that I won the first major—that I reached basically my lifetime goal. So, of course, it's tough to just continue like before.”

“That was the main reason, I just had to think about it, regroup myself. That took a little bit of time.”

Coming back into the fold, Dominic Thiem, seeded 3 and placed into the top half of the draw, started off in good form, defeating Marcos Giron (🎂 27 · 🇺🇸 73) in the second round of the tournament with a score of 6:1 6:3. Thiem followed it up with an impressive 7:6[7] 6:4 victory over Alex de Minaur (🎂 22 · 🇦🇺 25 · 🏆 4), before coming back from a set down against John Isner (🎂 36 · 🇺🇸 39 · 🏆 15), stopping the American’s charge into the semi-finals.

Isner played with the weight of the whole nation on his shoulders—his failure to make the semi-finals of the tournament means that for the first time since ATP rankings started in 1973, there will be no American player in the top-30.

In the semi-finals, Dominic Thiem came up against his good friend, Sascha Zverev (🎂 24 · 🇩🇪 6 · 🏆 14), in a rematch of the 2018 edition’s final.

The two have not met since the US Open final in 2020, where Thiem overcame heavy cramping to realise his lifelong dream of winning a Slam.

This time, it was Zverev who came out on top, making quick work of a misfiring Austrian, taking the match 6:3 6:4.

Dominic Thiem took his loss in stride, “In general I'm super happy with the week. I would have never expected to be in the semi-finals. I cannot complain about anything.”

Death in the afternoon

Although it wasn’t July, and we weren’t in Pamplona, three Russians and a Greek were heavily gored on the sun-soaked dirt of Madrid.

In the early Thursday afternoon hours, as the cries of ¡Olé! echoed around the stadium, Aslan Karatsev was felled by Alexander Bublik, Cristian Garín witnessed the self-implosion of Daniil Medvedev, John Isner outserved Andrey Rublev, and Casper Ruud solidified his clay court credentials with a win over Stefanos Tsitsipas.

R3: 🇰🇿 Alexander Bublik d. 🇷🇺 Aslan Karatsev - 6:4 6:3

R3: 🇨🇱 Cristian Garín d. 🇷🇺 Daniil Medvedev - 6:4 6:7[2] 6:1

R3: 🇺🇸 John Isner d. 🇷🇺 Andrey Rublev - 7:6[4] 3:6 7:6[4]

R3: 🇳🇴 Casper Ruud d. 🇬🇷 Stefanos Tsitsipas - 7:6[4] 6:4

The final

One of the many indisputable truisms of tennis is that Rafa Nadal is a favourite to win any clay court tournament he enters. It wasn’t any different in Madrid.

Nadal flew in hot, fresh off his Barcelona win, and was the bookies’ favourite to lift the trophy despite not having made the final since 2017. But the Spaniard’s campaign for the sixth Madrid title was derailed by, of late, peerless Sascha Zverev 6:4 6:4.

The German played a near-perfect game, dominating the encounter in virtually every aspect of the match—his service and return percentage outdid Nadal’s, and he won an impressive 82% of his first-serve points.

After losing the first five times the pair met, this is Zverev’s third win in a row over Nadal, the first one on clay.

Following the win, Zverev moved past Dominic Thiem to set up a meeting with a Masters final debutant, Matteo Berrettini (🎂 25 · 🇮🇹 10 · 🏆 4).

Berrettini, who broke into the top-10 in 2019, feels like a relative newcomer although he has been on the Tour since 2015.

A gifted athlete—Berrettini competed in swimming, football and judo, before going into pro tennis at the insistence of his younger brother Jacopo—he made his way into the final by defeating a compatriot Fabio Fognini (🎂 33 · 🇮🇹 28 · 🏆 9) in the second round 6:3 6:4, a qualifier (🎂 30 · 🇦🇷 86 · 🏆 2) Federico Delbonis 7:6[4] 6:4, Medvedev-slaying Cristian Garín 5:7 6:3 6:0, and in the semi-final, Tsitsipas-defying (🎂 22 · 🇳🇴 16 · 🏆 1) Casper Ruud 6:4 6:4.

Both players stepped up to the occasion and served up tennis of the highest quality.

In the first set, both Zverev and Berrettini traded blows and ground out points from the baseline, breaking each other once to keep level in games and arriving at a tie-break. In the breaker, Berrettini quickly went 5-1 and then 6-2 up on Zverev, and when the German pulled back up to 6-6, it seemed that the nerves got better of the Italian, who, competing in his first Masters final, was the slight underdog. Bizarrely, at 8-8, Zverev cracked and missed a 226km/h second serve to hand Berrettini a set point which the Italian duly converted.

In the second set, the pair went toe to toe, exchanging games and rarely threatening each other. Things stood even until 3:3 when Zverev saw the first breakpoint, but it was defended well by the Italian who held serve. However, serving at 4:4, Berrettini played a shaky game, and after losing the point at 15:30, found himself facing two breakpoints. Zverev converted at the first opportunity and served out the set with ease for a 6:4.

Berrettini was visibly more nervous in the deciding set, spraying his game with errors and poor shot selection, and at 2:2 dropped service for the third time in the match. Up a break, Zverev played like a man with one hand on the trophy, and there was a sensation to his game that he was not going to let it go.

Serving a 3:5, Berrettini—pressure mounting and the opportunity vanishing into thin air like a mirage—made a few uncharacteristic errors, and after presenting Zverev with two break- and championship points, eventually succumbed to the German.

For Alexander Zverev, it was his 15th singles trophy, fourth Masters title in total, and the second one in Madrid (2018, 2021).

Zverev solidifies his position as the sixth racquet in the world and moves up to number five in the Race to Turin.

🇩🇪 Alexander Zverev d. 🇮🇹 Matteo Berrettini - 6:7[8] 6:4 6:3

Deep Dive

This week we analyse the age-to-ranking relationship of players.

  • Players from the first and second columns are considered NextGen contenders. Notably, Jannik Sinner and Félix Auger-Aliassime are already placed inside the top-20.

  • The third and fourth columns depict players coming into the prime of their careers.

  • A large number of players inside the top-30 are considered to be of a top-10 ceiling. The ones already inside the top-10 are legitimate number one contenders.

  • Thiem, Schwartzman, and Karatsev are enjoying their career-best or near-career-best periods. A few players in this age group, namely Kyrgios, Pouille, Edmund, Evans, and Paire are approaching a now-or-never category.

  • The last four columns show players who compete with their opponents as much as their own ageing bodies.

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