The pro tournaments in Madrid and Rome are interesting as clay-court tune-ups for Garros. They are also important in their own right, whether measured in prestige, prize moneys, or ranking points. Winning both of them earns a male player the same reward in ranking points as winning Garros itself. Recently the Mutua Madrid Open unfolded in a dazzling modern setting called The Magic Box, complete with three highly enclosed, retractable-roof main courts along with newly designed, blue-clay court surfaces. One week later, the cast reassembled in Rome for the history-laden Italian Open. Nearly all the world's top male and female players competed in both events.
Madrid (6-13 May)
The blue clay at Madrid caused much discussion. The color helped tv viewers visualize the ball during play. But the surface proved to be unusually slippery, which made athletic court movement difficult -- i.e., in starting, stopping, and changing direction. Defensive play was greatly disadvantaged, and rallies tended to be shorter than usual. The conditions favored athletes light on their feet and skilled in controlling their body in movement -- Federer is a prime example -- and accustomed to stopping by sliding prior to, rather than after, stroking the ball.
It seemed unlikely that the blue dye could explain the poor traction. The packed surface seemed hard, producing a fast bounce, and the conventional loose layer of grains was swept over that surface in the manner common on red clay. Perhaps the significant elevation above sea level contributed to court dryness, even as the thinner air retarded ball speed through the air less than elsewhere.
Members of the men's Big Four had early troubles. The tournament's defending champion, Djokovic, lost a set in his first match, against qualifier Gimeno-Traver who was playing his fourth. Djokovic later lost in the quarter-finals to shorter Tipsarevic, whose movement seemed largely unbothered by the poor traction. Djokovic and Nadal were both unhappy with the surface.
Rafa lost to Verdasco after holding a double-break lead in their third set. His inexplicable collapse began with a horribly missed sitter and continued amid many errors by Nadal. Meanwhile Roger Federer lost his first set against Milos Raonic. Roger survived, but Raonic won more points during the match, had more service-break opportunities, and served 21 aces (against only one double-fault).
With Rafa gone, the lower half was decided in a violent semi-final between del Potro and Berdych. The score was close throughout, though Berdych was the better in scoring aces, the more aggressive, and slightly the better mover on the slippery blue. Both sets reached tiebreak, where in both cases the score was dead-even prior to the last two points, Berdych winning.
Tomas Berdych thus became Federer's opponent in the final round. Tomas dominated for one set, dispatching rockets early in points, feasting on Roger's often softish, temporizing offerings. Roger managed to equalize the play thereafter, stepping up his own controlled aggression, reducing his own errors, and winning the second set narrowly. After that, Berdych's big game lost some of its consistency even as Roger's variety and defensive skills came into greater effect. Roger's triumphal week in the unusual conditions was a splendid reminder of Roger's versatility and overall mastery of the game.
Data from the tournament's last four rounds told an unexpected story. The number of aces per point played was 9.9% -- nearly twice the usual percentage on red clay at Garros. This percentage was also higher than at Australian and U.S. Opens, indeed almost as high as at Wimbledon. This high frequency of aces at Madrid seemed further indication of (1) the fast speed of ball through the air and in bouncing and (2) the poor foot traction, needed in reacting to strong serves.
In the count of matches won by nation, the host-nation captured their expected success. The Armada's Verdasco and Ferrer both reached the final eight in singles, as did Granollers-Lopez in doubles. Spain thus finished first, France second in the tally. Meanwhile the tournament's top overachiever in singles was the slender and speedy, Kiev-born Alex Dolgopolov, 23, Alex had been unseeded but actually reached the final eight, thus achieving a score of +2 in levels of overachievement.
Rome (May 13-21)
The clay at the Foro Italico was traditional both in its red color and in its traction. A small annoyance was an occasional cloud of loose dirt stirred by wind. Weather was generally ideal except for rain on the last day, forcing postponement of the men's final. The count of aces was 4.5 per point played, fewer than half the rate just seen at Madrid and indeed lower than the six-year average at Garros of 5.9. The courts seemed fast, but the serving data suggested otherwise.
The top players generally advanced through the draw as expected, except that Andy Murray succumbed in his second match to a well-focused Richard Gasquet. Meanwhile unseeded Andreas Seppi, age 28 at height 6-3, penetrated the final eight by winning three-setters against Isner and Wawrinka. Against Isner, who was unable to summon the first-strike precision seen in recent clay-court successes, Seppi was the better player in every respect except in ace-serving.
Rafael Nadal seemed at his clay-court best in reaching the final, though his wins over Berdych and Ferrer were not easy. The tall Czech matched Rafa in their brutal exchanges, dazzling in their forceful power and direction as well as in the athletic movement of both men. Then on Saturday, David Ferrer was probably the better player through most of the first set. But when Rafa managed to turn things his way in the set-ending tiebreak game, Ferrer thereafter wore down quickly against Rafa's usual battering.
Djokovic and Federer met in the other semi-final. Novak dominated most of the way, applying his familiar relentless and largely error-free power, backed by superb court movement. As rallies lengthened Federer's errors became the more numerous. Roger managed to threaten toward the finish, playing his best tennis of the evening and helped by noisy crowd support. But Novak prevailed in their second-set tiebreaker, decided by a single minibreak.
They gathered at noon on Monday, rain having forced postponement the day before. The finalists were the same two as one year before, when Djokovic defeated a gimpy Nadal in two sets. Both men now looked fully healthy as the Sun broke through.
The first set was closely contested, Nadal winning it. Rafa then captured an early break of serve in the second. Novak -- now needing to break back -- stepped up his intensity, showing emotion regularly and becoming more aggressive, applying drop shots surprisingly often, usually skillfully. The pressure was severe, but Rafa managed to sustain his edge on the scoreboard, helped by errors in forecourt by his opponent and his own determined and occasionally spectacular defending. It ended in the ninth game when Novak surrendered a second break. It was Rafa's sixth Italian crown.
A pleasant footnote was home-nation hero Andreas Seppi, who became the event's top overachiever by reaching the round of eight from an unseeded start, thus attaining +2 overachieving levels. Meanwhile Spain was far ahead in match wins behind Nadal, Ferrer, and the champion doubles pair, Granollers-Lopez. France was again second.
GARROS 2012 INDICATORS
Our view now broadens as we consult our customary five indicators. These will guide our estimates of likely outcomes at Garros 2012.
1. Weighted results of last 15 months
Our first and most basic indicator stems from ten years of data showing how well results at the leading tournaments have predicted forthcoming outcomes at Garros. Thus our most heavily weighted predictors of the men's singles at Garros 2012 are Monte Carlo 2012 and Garros 2011. (A total of 23 predictor tournaments were used in the calculation. Those lesser events showing very low correlations with past Garros results were excluded.)
1. Rafael Nadal, score = 5.39
2. Novak Djokovic, 5.20
3. Roger Federer, 3.05
4. Andy Murray, 2.42
5. Tomas Berdych, 1.86
6. David Ferrer, 1.63
This indicator's placing of Nadal at the top, ahead of Djokovic in his chances to win at Garros, reverses the order seen in the official 12-month world rankings, used for the Garros seedings.
The indicator and the official rankings otherwise agree on the rank order of the Big Four. Ours moves Berdych and Ferrer ahead of Tsonga, who is fifth in the official rankings.
2. Results on clay in 2012.
Included in this compilation are results to date in the current European clay circuit along with results earlier this year on clay -- the Latin American early-year circuit, the several Davis Cup meetings on clay, at U.S. Clay Championships in Houston, and Challenger tournaments.
1. Rafael Nadal, 2,590 atp points
2. David Ferrer, 1,730
3. Novak Djokovic, 1,380
4. Roger Federer, 1,365
5. Nicolas Almagro, 910
6. Fernando Verdasco, 860
The Spanish Armada is prominent here, claiming four of the six positions at the top.
3. Prestige wins vs. total losses, 2011-2012
This indicator has given intriguing insights in past exercises. Here, victories against the following elite players count as prestige wins: Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Murray, Ferrer, Berdych, del Potro, Tsonga, Soderling.
1. Novak Djokovic, 31 prestige wins vs. 11 total losses = ratio 2.82
2. Rafael Nadal, 22 vs. 20 = 1.10
3. Roger Federer, 18 vs. 17 = 1.06
4. Andy Murray, 11 vs. 20 = 0.50
5. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 12 vs. 34 = 0.35
6. David Ferrer, 7 vs. 26 = 0.27
The Big Four remain ahead here, though the numbers strongly suggest the weakening credentials of Murray for membership. Djokovic's margin at the top is astonishing, reflecting his superb run in the first half of 2011.
4. Recent improvement pattern
This indicator compares each players recent performance vs. his previous historically best level.
1. Martin Klizan (age 22), ratio 4.30
2. Tatsumo Ito (age 24), 4.25
3. Roberto Bautista-Agut (age 24), 4.22
4. David Goffin (age 21), 3.68
5. Marinko Matosevic (age 26), 3.36
6. Albano Olivetti (age 20), 3.01
Our formula produces this list of youngish players, all of whom seem likely risers in forthcoming rankings. But none appear now ready for Slam-crown contention. Much of their recent play has been in upper-level Challenger tournaments or in qualifying rounds for main-tour events.
5. Past success at Garros
If the previous indicator featured players still well back in the rankings, this one favors past superstars. (Results at Garros 2011 are given full weight, while earlier results are reduced in weight by 10% for each year of aging. Each player's best five years after aging are counted.)
1. Rafael Nadal, score 33.3
2. Roger Federer, 24.0
3. Novak Djokovic, 12.0
4. Gael Monfils, 6.9
5. Nicolay Davydenko, 6.6
Here, we pin down the chances of the leading candidates for winning Garros 2012. We employ subjective judgment but remain strongly guided by the indicators. Indeed, the four superstars atop our composite of indicators also appear in the same order atop our list of favorites that follows.
1. Rafael Nadal, odds 1.25-1. Rafa leads in three of our indicators, and he also leads in our composite of all of them. But what most exaggerates the odds here favoring Rafa to win Garros is the demonstration of his supremacy over Djokovic in their recent meeting in Rome.
At age 25, having established himself as history's greatest clay-courter, the former wunderkind remains as determined as ever. Combining absolutely superior court movement with unmatched overspin in his stroking, a healthy Rafa has become essentially unbeatable in best-of-five-set action on clay.
2. Novak Djokovic, odds 4-1. Novak has been three times a semi-finalist at Garros, including last year when he lost to Federer in the semis. His margin over all others in our second indicator, Prestige wins vs. total losses, is indeed impressive, fortifying his second-place rank in our hierarchy. Plainly he has the weaponry and temperament of a champion.
Novak, who just turned 25, is eleven months younger than Nadal and leads in their head-to-head match-ups on nonclay courts. But on clay, Rafa leads in victories 11-2, where Rafa's straight-set wins at Monte Carlo and Rome this year offset Novak's two clay-court wins of 2011.
3. Roger Federer, odds 10-1. The indicators clearly place Roger as the player third-most-likely to prevail in Paris. He has scored some fine successes since U.S. Open last summer, often showing the same power and variety seen in his championship years. His skills, strength, and stamina at age 30 seem to have declined only marginally, though his need to conserve energy in best-of-five-set matches has been evident. He holds the edge careerwise over Djokovic on clay, including a win at Garros 2011, but Novak won their recent meeting in Rome. Nadal is far ahead of Roger on clay historically, though Roger managed to win a set in each of their recent clay-court match-ups, at Madrid 2011 and Garros 2011.
4. David Ferrer, odds 20-1. David is ahead of Andy Murray in only one of the indicators, "Clay results in 2012," but his margin there is so strong that he climbs ahead of Murray in our composite. Garros is of course the tournament where Ferrer is most likely to penetrate the Big Four, pyramiding David's on-court competitiveness atop his potent clay-court skills. Ferrer's greatest obstacle to winning the crown, however, is Rafael Nadal, who has won their last thirteen meetings on clay, and the difficulty grows in best-of-five play.
5. Andy Murray, odds 25-1. Andy's easy power in serving and stroking, his excellent court mobility, and his propensity for patient play all argue that Andy should be successful on clay. But over his career he has played far less frequently on clay than on hard courts, and he shows a much poorer winning percentage thereon. He has slipped well behind the other Big Four members overall, and his split-set loss to Berdych this year on the Monte Carlo clay suggests that the fading could continue at Garros.
6. Tomas Berdych, odds 25-1. The tall Czech star ranks ahead of Ferrer in our first indicator and ahead of Murray in the second. His brilliance in the current clay season has been unmistakable, featuring extreme power in serving and stroking and very good court movement and court craft. (He defeated Murray at Monte Carlo, later battled well in split-set losses to Djokovic and Federer, and then lost to Nadal in two hard-fought sets in Rome.) A break-out upward move at age 26 could be just ahead.
7. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, odds 40-1. Jo-Wilfried trails our first six in the indicators, but his power and athleticism make him dangerous to any opponent. Like Murray, his career shows far fewer appearances and a poorer winning percentage on clay.
Juan Martin del Potro, Nicolas Almagro, odds for each, 60-1
Richard Gasquet, John Isner, Gilles Simon, odds for each 80-1
THE WOMEN AT MADRID AND ROME
The slippery surfaces at Madrid also bothered the women, especially the taller stars. Venus Williams lost to improving Kerber, Wickmayer lost to smallish Vinci, and Kvitova lost to strong-serving, strong-stroking fellow Czech player Hradecka.
Meanwhile Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka made successful journeys to the final. Serena fell behind Wozniacki early but recovered to earn a quarter-final date with Sharapova. That show-down went to Serena, as the taller Maria reacted poorly to Serena's heavy blows, even as the American's explosive movement to the ball seemed never better. Meanwhile Azarenka lost only one set -- in her bruising quarter-final win over Li Na.
But in their Sunday-afternoon final, Vika fared no better against Serena than had Sharapova earlier. The powerful American again proved wholly dominant, relishing the very fast conditions amid 90-degree sunshine. Serena led Vika in ace-making, 14-0, as well as in every other aspect. Her triumph in Madrid lifted Serena to sixth place in the official rankings, up from ninth one week earlier.
In Rome the next week, the upper half of the draw was unfortunately diminished by injury-related withdrawals. Top-seeded Azarenka defaulted with shoulder trouble, removing the tournament's top seed from Li Na's path. Then Pennetta retired after four games, helping Serena in reaching the final four. Serena then herself withdrew prior to her semi-final against Li. The Chinese star thus reached the final.
The lower half was unaffected. Maria Sharapova reached the final without losing a set enroute, though all her opponents gave good resistance. Her third victim was Venus Williams, whose excellent earlier run amid her lingering health concerns included a win over Stosur. Then in the semis, Maria faced firm defenses and occasional excellent counter-attack by rising German lefty Angelique Kerber. Some fine short angles and drop shots by Maria helped the Russian superstar eventually to pull ahead.
Final-round Sunday in Rome. It was Sharapova against Li Na -- the tournament's defending champion against last year's Garros champion, amid cool temperatures and heavy cloud cover. The first set was ferocious, both women pounding the corners and sidelines with relentless power. Li won that set, proving herself the better mover, able to exploit an erratic Sharapova forehand. Na then won the first four games of set two amid an erratic stretch by Maria.
But the momentum turned as raindrops began to slow the playing conditions, weakening Na's steady rocketry, and as Maria decided to stop making errors. Li's mental disarray became obvious as Maria ran off the next six games to win the second set. But after Maria built a strong lead in set three, it now became Maria's turn to feel the pressure of anticipated victory. Matters reached third-set tiebreak, just as the court became too wet to continue.
Play resumed two hours later, the drama as high as before. Both players now competed with excellent composure. By the margin of a single minibreak, and following a remarkable sequence of points decided by extremely small margins, Sharapova again became the champion of Italy.
The Russian women led in the tally of nations at both Madrid and Rome. The margin was strong in Madrid, but the verdict was not decided in Rome until final-round Sunday, when Maria's victory jumped the Russkayas one-half match-win ahead of U.S.A.
Our Indicators parallel those used for the men.
1. Weighted results of last 15 months
1. Maria Sharapova, 3.71
2. Victoria Azarenka, 3.26
3. Agnieszka Radwanska, 2.55
4. Petra Kvitova, 2.01
5. Serena Williams, 1.98
6. Li Na, 1.92
2. Results on clay in 2012.
1. Serena Williams, 1,880 atp points
2. Maria Sharapova, 1,620
3. Victoria Azarenka, 1,145
4.. Sara Errani, 1.055
5. Na Li, 990
6. Sam Stosur, 710
3. Prestige wins vs. total losses, 2011-2012
(Prestige wins are victories over the following elite players: Wozniacki, Kvitova, Azarenka, Sharapova, Radwanska, Li, Stosur, S. Williams, Zvonareva, Clijsters)
1. Serena Williams, 10 prestige wins vs. 6 total losses = ratio 1.67
2. Victoria Azarenka, 10 vs. 21 = 0.91
3. Maria Sharapova, 15 vs. 19 = 0.79
4. Petra Kvitova, 15 vs. 20 = 0.75
5. Na Li, 9 v. 25 = 0.36
6.. Sam Stosur, 11 vs. 34 = 0.32
4. Recent improvement pattern
1. Angelique Kerber, ratio 5.80
2.. Kiki Bertens, 5.21
3. Garbine Muguruza Blanco, 4.79
4. Timea Babos, 4.03
5. Sara Errani, 3.44
6. Grace Min, 3.23
Our foremost current riser here, Angelique Kerber, 24, scored a prestige win at Rome by defeating Kvitova, though Petra's usually potent serving may have been hampered by shoulder trouble on that occasion.
The next three listed here after Kerber are all under age 21. Recent successes have lifted Bertens and Babos into the world's top hundred this year, while Muguruza Blanco, 18 at height 6-0, now stands at a current #120.
5. Past success at Garros
1. Svetlana Kuznetsova, score 16.2
2. Francesca Schiavone, 15.3
3. Ana Ivanovic, 11.5
4. Jelena Jankovic, 10.6
5. Li Na, 9.8
6. Maria Sharapova, 9.5
We employ the indicators along with subjective judgment in assessing the chances of the primary contenders. Our three leading candidates among the women accord exactly with the top three in our composite of indicators.
1. Serena Williams, odds 2.5-1. The return of Serena Williams from her ordeal of injury and sickness is drama-laden. Her run this spring at age 30 included a triumph on clay in Charleston, then the highly impressive triumph in Madrid, and finally the wins at Rome ending in the withdrawal prior to the semis. The undefeated sequence on clay makes her the clear favorite to win in Paris. Her reservoir of power in serving and stroking, and especially her athletic movement even on slippery clay, says that if she can find her present-day best, she should defeat anyone.
Serena leads in two of our indicators, where most telling is her superior record of wins against elite opponents. She also tops our composite list. Her odds are improved from 7-1, announced here last month prior to Madrid.
2. Maria Sharapova, odds 4-1. Maria reached the final round in Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami 2012, losing in each case. Her success improved on European clay this spring, where she triumphed in Stuttgart, defeating her recent nemesis Azarenka, then reached the final in Madrid, and finally triumphed again in Rome.
Clearly Maria's movement has improved on the clay, her serving is again an important weapon, and the rocketry is usually applied with good tactical sense. There can be bad days when something -- the serve for example -- will not behave. But her determination is as strong as ever, and a triumph at Garros remains a clear possibility. She leads in our first indicator, 15-month weighted results. Her current odds are unchanged from prior to Madrid.
3. Victoria Azarenka, odds 5-1. Victoria began 2012 with 23 straight victories in a run that included the championships at Sydney, Australian Open, Doha, and Indian Wells, where she delivered and sustained relentless power with relatively few errors. In the four final-round wins, only one opponent, Li Na, managed to win a set.
Conceivably, tiredness from the heavy match schedule contributed to Vika's several later losses, which included one-sided defeats by Sharapova and Serena on clay. She has twice reached the quarters at Garros but never gone beyond. Her withdrawal at Rome for shoulder trouble was described as preventive.
4. Li Na, odds 10-1. Na seemed twice on the verge of victory in Rome 2012, only to falter in both situations. The final margin was small, however, and Na showed excellent ability in both defending and attacking against Sharapova. Her triumph at Garros 2011 was no fluke, as her victims there included defending-champion Schiavone, Sharapova, Azarenka, and the imminent Wimbledon champion Kvitova.
5. Petra Kvitova, odds 15-1. Petra's formerly magnificent serve was absent in Rome, reportedly because of shoulder trouble. That circumstance, along with Petra's disappointing overall results in 2012 to date, greatly diminish her chances at Garros.
6. Sam Stosur, odds 25-1. There have been no tournament triumphs for Sam in 2012, though she has usually reached at least the middle rounds. Her record at Garros is better than at the other Slams. From her impressive performance during her journey to the final round in 2010, she wrongly became the general favorite to defeat Schiavone. She stands sixth in our third indicator, having produced a total of eleven wins over elite players in 2011-2012.
7. Agnieszka Radwanska, odds 40-1. At age 23 Agnieszka has risen , to the official #3 rank in spring 2012. Hers is a game of patience and placement, as she resorts to full power usually only to finish points, not to create openings. Her softish offerings make it hard for her to defeat the heavy hitters of the top level. But she captured Miami 2012, defeating Sharapova in a straight-set final.
8. Angelique Kerber, odds 50-1. Angelique merits billing here owing to her top ranking in our fourth indicator, which compares recent performance with the player's historical best. Her current official world ranking of #10 is her best ever, following her reaching the semis in Rome. She is a strong and determined court presence, who required Sharapova to produce her best in Rome.
Caroline Wozniacki, Francesca Schiavone, Marion Bartoli, odds for each, 75-1.
Jankovic, Venus Williams, Ivanovic, Lisicki, Safariova, Pavlyuchenkova, Goerges, odds for each, 100-1 or longer.
Our analyses point fairly clearly to the likely winners in both the men's and women's singles. If the respective favorites are healthy and playing at their best, their triumphs seem almost certain. We are not allowed to attach such conditions to our predictions. But the confidence is nevertheless high in making our final pronouncement -- that Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams will become the men's and women's champions of this, yet another magnificent Slam.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX -- COMPOSITE OF INDICATORS
The composite scores from the five indicators are here appended.
1. Rafael Nadal, score 131.4
2. Novak Djokovic, 104.3
3. Roger Federer, 74.5
4. David Ferrer, 28.2
5. Andy Murray, 21.9
6. Tomas Berdych, 18.3
7. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6.4
(Note: Omitted above are several rising players who scored well only in the fourth indicator: Klizan 23.6, Ito 22.9, Bautista-Agut 22.4)
1. Serena Williams, score 85.6
2. Maria Sharapova, 71.1
3. Victoria Azarenka, 52.5
4. Angelique Kerber, 36.8
5. Li Na, 34.0
6. Petra Kvitova, 25.0
7. Sam Stosur, 23.1
(Note: Omitted above is Kiki Bertens, 25.3, who scored well only in the fourth indicator.)
The integration of the five indicators into a composite was performed as follows. The raw scores of the top eight in each indicator were first adjusted by subtracting from each the value of the ninth-best score. The resulting values were then further adjusted, proportionally, to reach an overall total of 100 in each indicator. These final scores in the five indicators were then summed at equal weight to reach the player's composite score.