What’s underfoot gets into Nadal’s head

Serena Williams took a set to get her act together before beating Caroline Wozniacki 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, in the MutuaMadrid Open on Thursday, but there was no reprieve for Rafael Nadal.

To his fury and frustration, the Spaniard blew all kinds of chances against Fernando Verdasco before losing to his compatriot 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 for the first time in their 14 all-time meetings.

And, of course, it was all about the blue clay. Despite playing impressively against Nikolay Davydenko the day before, Nadal allowed the whole controversy about the slippery surface to get inside his head and started spraying balls all over the place as he tried to serve out for victory twice in the third set.

"I will not play here next year if the clay is blue," he said, throwing down the gauntlet to Ion Tiriac, the brooding Romanian impresario who went out on a limb by deciding to switch from regular red European clay to this deep blue in order to make it easier for TV audiences to follow the ball.

Top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who beat Stan Wawrinka 7-6, 6-4 under lights, piled more pressure on the tournament organizers when, answering a question about if he would do the same as Nadal and not play next year if the court is not changed, he replied: "Yes, the same. The winner this year will be the one who doesn’t get hurt. This is a new experience and, hopefully, it will be the last experience.”

Now, Tiriac must face the consequences, and they will include the wrath of many Spaniards who will not have enjoyed seeing their national hero humiliated. The only consolation was that the defeat came at the hands of a local player whose family members run two popular restaurants in Madrid and who has won many admirers for his rugged and determined brand of tennis.

Nadal was quick to praise Verdasco.

"I think he deserved it,” Nadal said. “He played really well at the big moments. The court was the same for both of us. I just wasn’t good enough to adapt despite coming here earlier than I do for most tournaments in order to prepare."

Nadal certainly tried, but he was undone by his mindset. Knowing full well that his type of player would not prosper on a court that did not offer a firm enough footing for baseline chasers, he had been against the experiment from the start. Like Djokovic, he was unhappy that Tiriac had not consulted the players through the ATP.

"I just think it was a bad decision,” Nadal said. “In trying to correct my movement I almost injured my hip a couple of times. If you cannot stand up, you cannot play your shots. You get your control with your legs, and here you cannot do that.”

The problem with Nadal’s argument, which is true in many respects, lies in the fact he was playing a fellow left-hander of similar build who plays in a similar style. But Verdasco had only won four sets in 13 matches against Nadal and was going to lose again here before Rafa began missing balls he would never miss in a million years if his mind were in the right place.

This was a match lost between the ears — not with the legs. The surface had nothing to do with the smash that he dumped into the net from a range of three feet in the final game, nor some of the forehands he hit long from firm-footed positions.

What the surface did take away from him was the ability to run and chase and hook balls back from impossible positions — a skill that has become his trademark and allowed him to win the Monte Carlo clay-court tournament eight straight times and Barcelona seven times, as well as the French Open six times in seven years. He overcame the problem against Davydenko by attacking and getting inside the baseline. But faced with a mirror image, he seemed reluctant to do that against Verdasco, who was quite good enough to defend his end of the court.

As he heads off for Rome and courts of a more familiar color, Nadal will need to obliterate this experience from his mind if he is to get back in a familiar clay-court groove.

Being lighter on his feet, Roger Federer can handle this sort of surface more easily and proved it with a commanding performance against Richard Gasquet. Federer defeated the Frenchman 6-3, 6-2 in 58 minutes. Federer had been pushed to the limit by Canada’s Milos Raonic the previous evening, but this was a breeze for the Swiss who won this tournament in 2009 and will now fancy his chances of doing so again.

Serena suggested she was fighting “some kind of demon” during the first set against Wozniacki, but she did not specify what kind. Nor did she make too much of a fuss about the court, apart from suggesting she felt a little bit like an ice skater.

“But actually I can ice skate, so it’s not a bad thing,” she said. “But I don’t know — I can play on any court. I’m not the person to ask about balls or surfaces. I could tell you when it’s windy, and that’s about it.”

Serena, currently ranked No. 9, now will play the in-form Maria Sharapova, who is the No 2 seed. May the best ice skater win.