Blue clay continues to be problem

The world No. 1 followed the world No. 2 out of the Mutua Madrid Open, complaining bitterly about blue clay on Friday.

Novak Djokovic went down 7-6 (2), 6-3 to fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic in the quarterfinals, losing a match Djokovic would have been expected to win in a cakewalk under normal circumstances.

The same could be said about Rafael Nadal’s defeat at the hands of his compatriot, Fernando Verdasco, on Thursday. After his loss, Djokovic unloaded another barrage against the ATP — rather than the tournament organizers — because he feels they did not listen to their constituents: the players.

It was ironic that the last ATP CEO, Adam Helfant — who stood down in December — had flown in to be feted along with two other ATP leaders, the long serving Mark Miles from Indianapolis and the South African Etienne de Villiers, because it was Helfant who took the brunt of Djokovic’s criticism.

"The fault is with the people who let them do it," Djokovic said. "Decisions were taken behind closed doors, but I don’t want to go into that. I cannot blame the present president (CEO Brad Drewett) because he has only just come into the job. It was the past president who made the decision, and he was leaving. He only cared about himself."

Earlier in the day, Helfant had openly admitted he had made the decision to allow blue clay.

"We asked for rigorous tests to be taken to make sure there were no toxic substances being used in the manufacture of the blue clay," Helfant said. "And we got those assurances. So I took the decision."

Djokovic demanded the ATP "strongly consider what we, the players, feel and where we stand. If they don’t, the decision is simple — no blue clay for me next year."

Djokovic was full of praise for his Davis Cup buddy Tipsarevic, admitting Djokovic had missed the few chances he had because "any time I had a chance, he delivered his best shots. Janko is playing his best tennis, and I hope he goes on to win the tournament."

As for Tipsarevic, he refused to sing the party line, just like Tomas Berdych, who earlier had thrashed Verdasco 6-1, 6-2.

"It’s not the color that is the problem," Tipsarevic said. "The guys in the locker room are not complaining about the blue. It is just very, very slippery. The bounce is normal and nice. It is just very tough to defend. That’s why Rafa and Novak, the two best players at turning defense into attack, have had problems."

The point Tipsarevic made is very pertinent. This is not a surface for defenders and grinders, but the world’s two best players are a little better than that. They lost because they allowed the issue to override their abilities. Had they lost to first-strike players such as Berdych or Juan Martin del Potro, who defeated Alexandr Dogopolov, or a fleet-footed mover such as Roger Federer, it would have been understandable. But they lost to poor mirror images of themselves.

There is only one answer to that: mental breakdown.

Berdych, a big man who might have been expected to struggle on this surface, seemed stronger in the head.

"I grew up on clay," he said. "I don’t see it as a disadvantage. I am not complaining at all. For me, there is no problem."

Looking as if he played on blue clay all his life, Federer swept into the semifinals with a straight-set win over world No. 5 David Ferrer.

"I don’t mind this kind of court," Federer said. "Altitude is always going to be factor here, so that helps my game. But it is always good to attack no matter what kind of clay you are playing on. And remember, it has always been slippery here. This is just more so."

Even the loser refused to blame the court.

"Yesterday, I did really good (against Nicolas Almagro), but today I tried and (it wasn’t) good enough. I have no excuses," Ferrer said.

On the women’s side, it looked like the perfect matchup on paper — the two most charismatic names in women’s tennis meeting for the first time in more than a year. But in front of a half empty Center Court, it never caught fire on a warm spring day. Serena Williams played true to form in her face off with Maria Sharapova and won all too easily, 6-1, 6-3.

After a lengthy talk from her Swedish coach, Thomas Hogstedt, at the end of the first set, Sharapova tried to be more aggressive and, for one game, it worked. At 1-2 down, the tall Russian unleashed three power-packed returns and broke back at love. But Williams was untroubled by the sudden onslaught and promptly broke serve again.

It is easy to forget that, at 30, Williams is five years older than Sharapova. Their rivalry goes back to a first meeting in Miami in 2004, the year Maria would go on to win Wimbledon by beating Williams in the final when she was only 17. But in a total of nine meetings before today, Sharapova has only managed one more victory over the younger Williams sister — again in 2004 at the WTA Championships.

Despite some good form recently — she beat Victoria Azarenka in the Stuttgart final last week — Sharapova never looked capable of stemming the rush of winners that flowed off Serena’s racket. Maria will need to go back to the drawing board if she is to break a run of seven straight defeats.

Serena was naturally happy to have blazed her way into the semifinals in such impressive fashion. In one of her more expansive moods, she reacted to the suggestion that the currently controversial tournament chief Ion Tiriac was advocating florescent balls, by lifting a leg up onto the table in the interview room to reveal florescent leggings.

"Florescent balls?" she laughed. "I’d be completely excited if we had florescent balls!"

Azarenka had a struggle to establish herself against French Open champion Li Na, who played an aggressive first set, but the Belarussian eventually brought her own power to bear and won 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.

There was an American qualifier in the quarterfinals. Varvara Lepchenko — who was born in Tashkent, but officially became a US citizen last September — had played above her ranking of 77 to beat No. 11 seed Francesca Schiavone in the first round and Israel’s Shahar Peer in the second. But the fourth-ranked Pole Agnieszka Radwanska weathered some heavy hitting from the left-hander and came through 6-4, 6-4. Lepchenko has taken another step up here and should be destined for the top 50 at least.