Rafael Nadal switched to Wimbledon mode to deal with what he called "the strange" blue clay beneath his feet, and it worked. Roared on by his passionate supporters at the MutuaMadrid Open on Wednesday, Nadal crushed Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko — who had won their previous four meetings — 6-2, 6-2.
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Realizing, after days of extra practice here, that the low bounce and slippery surface would not reward someone chasing along the baseline, Nadal went for bigger first serves and first-shot winners, as he tries to do on Wimbledon’s grass.
Despite being so worried about the surface that he asked to be allowed to play in grass court shoes — ATP rules wouldn’t allow it — Nadal looked more in control of his movement than the small, compact and normally quick footed Russian.
"I try to answer the problem by moving a little bit inside the court," Nadal said. "You cannot give initiative to the opponent on the first shot."
He certainly didn’t and Davydenko looked despondent long before the end.
"I gave it to him," Davydenko said. "I hit short and he pushed harder, and I had less time than normal. He started nervous but then started putting more spin, and that was it."
Having dealt with the match, Nadal opened his heart about what is really troubling him regarding his country’s premier tournament.
"For me it’s a big aspiration to be able to play in my country," he said. "The crowd has always been really nice to me and it’s a great feeling every time I go on court, an unforgettable feeling, indescribable. The only thing lacking is this . . . I think we should make it good for the players, the home players. The Spanish players should be supported with conditions as close as possible to what they like."
It is not a new request. There was much criticism back in the late 1970s when Forest Hills was switched to the green clay called Har-Tru for the US Open, paving the way for Manuel Orantes of Spain and Argentina’s Guillermo Vilas — two clay-court specialists — to win America’s premier event. There were cries of protest, too, when Wimbledon ripped out the moss beneath the grass, making Centre Court more like a hard court at the precise moment that Britain had one of the best serve and volleyers in the world in Tim Henman. He got to four semifinals but no further.
So it is easy to see where Nadal is coming from but, if he continues to play the way he did today, it might all become academic. The nation’s hero could win.
True to his attitude to life — a real "get on with it and shut up" sort of guy — David Ferrer refused to be drawn into the blue clay controversy after he defeated Radek Stepanek 7-6, 6-2.
"I have talked to Manolo Santana (tournament director), and I know they are looking for solutions because it is a bit slippery," Ferrer said. "So what can you do? It’s not a matter of criticizing; it’s a matter of going onto court and trying to play as well as possible."
John Isner joined the "don’t blame the court" brigade after he lost 7-6, 7-6 to Croatia’s Marin Cilic.
"The court had nothing to do with it," Isner said, emphatically. "I just didn’t play well enough. Cilic played better. It wasn’t my serve. I served great. I just didn’t do all the other things well, and I am going to have to go to Rome and go back to the drawing board."
As Isner pointed out, Cilic, three inches shorter than the American at 6-foot-6, is a big man, too, and he just handled the conditions better; blasting big winners off his forehand and dominating both breakers. (Click won them 7-4 and 7-3). Isner hardly helped himself by double-faulting twice in the second.
Ryan Harrison wasn’t expected to beat No. 4 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and never looked as if he would, despite a determined effort in the second set. The big Frenchman went through to round three by 6-2, 7-6. Harrison lost the breaker by 7-4 after a vociferous complaint over what he considered a "not up" play by Tsonga who lunged forward to reach a drop shot. Replays suggested that the ball had not, in fact, bounced twice, and Harrison quickly accepted the umpire’s judgment.
In the best match of the tournament so far, Roger Federer emerged victorious from a bruising battle against the 21-year-old Canadian powerhouse Milos Raonic to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-6.
Quickly realizing he had to put some pressure on Raonic, Federer began serving and volleying to a far greater extent than we have seen him in recent years and the tactics worked as the Swiss broke at the end of the second set with a lovely drop shot and then survived two break points in the seventh game of the third before grabbing the tiebreak 7-4.
"I wasn’t feeling confident at the back of the court because it is so slippery so I felt I needed to take it to him," said Federer. "I thought if I am not good enough from the back court and not good enough from the net I don’t deserve to be in the tournament. Happily it worked and soon I was able to get a better read on his serve as well and make him hit more balls."
Federer believes Raonic is top ten material and it is obvious the Raonic does, too.
"I walked on court believing I could win and walked off court knowing I could win," said this super confident young man. "I thought I did a really good job of taking care of my serve and it was just a couple of points in the end. This is the way I have to play and if I pick up experience and stay healthy, I’m just going to put myself in a position to get better."
Raonic was not about to be drawn on the subject of the blue clay. "Every week is different, be it clay, hard courts or grass," he said. "This is just a little more different than most. But I am not a top player, so I am just going to keep my mouth shut and play."