The 2015 Mutua Madrid Open — like the ones before it — is a point of intrigue and fascination, because this tournament has an inconsistent relationship with Roland Garros, the crown jewel of the clay-court season each year.
On one hand, Madrid’s higher elevation lends itself to a more aggressive style, one in which quality ballstrikers can do some damage. With the sole exception of Aravane Rezai in 2010, every Madrid Open played on clay in the new Caja Magica (Magic Box) tennis complex has produced a big-league champion, women and men alike. Since the Madrid Open moved from its previous indoor location to the Caja Magica in 2009, every champion except Rezai has contested a major final, and every champion with the exceptions of both Rezai and Dinara Safina (the 2009 winner) has won at least two major titles.
Yet, while great players win Madrid, this tournament hardly assures one of French Open success. The sample size is small, but playing well under these conditions is not the same thing as playing well at Roland Garros. The WTA is more reflective of this reality than the ATP, and it’s now very much a source of conversation with the French Open only two weeks away.
Last year, the 2014 Madrid Open gave us a final between Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep. The two players reunited at the Roland Garros final, which was the best major singles final of the whole season. As you can see, what happened in Madrid carried over — and rather cleanly at that — to Paris.
This year, it’s going to be a much tougher sell to convince tennis analysts that Madrid will foreshadow the fortnight in the City of Light. If Madrid is an indicator of Paris in 2015, most of the tennis cognoscenti will be surprised.
Petra Kvitova doesn’t care, and moreover, she shouldn’t.
Kvitova’s 2015 had been marked by a consistent series of struggles. Kvitova won a minor tournament in Sydney at the start of the season, but after that bread crumb of a victory, she failed to win more than two matches in any subsequent WTA tournament. She skipped Indian Wells and Miami in March to recharge her batteries, and she did win two Fed Cup matches in the middle of April, but after an opening-match loss to Madison Brengle in Stuttgart, any notions of a Kvitova resurgence were far from most minds in Madrid, even though Kvitova had won the title in 2011 and reached the semifinals last year.
Kvitova’s inability to find a sustained comfort zone on non-grass surfaces is well documented, and even though Madrid had been the site of happy moments in the past, it was hard to trust the Czech when the 2015 Madrid Open began.
It’s never Kvitova’s talent which merits distrust; it’s the inability to harness that talent with great regularity, to find the mind-body dualism which unlocks — and then perpetuates — prime performances. Consistency is and has been an elusive creature for Kvitova, but in the semifinals and finals of this tournament, the 25-year-old — very much in her physical prime — has reminded all of us how luminous her talent can be when it’s channeled into the feel and flow of competition.
Kvitova didn’t merely beat Serena Williams on an “Opposite Day” semifinal Friday, one which also featured Svetlana Kuznetsova accessing rare poise in defeating Maria Sharapova. Kvitova thrashed the world No. 1 and gave Serena her first loss of 2015. The 6-2, 6-3 victory also snapped Serena’s streak of 50 straight WTA Premier Mandatory match victories. Furthermore, Kvitova registered her first win over Serena in six tries.
Given everything we know about Kvitova’s career — especially the fact that she’s made only one French Open semifinal and zero finals — the temptation is easy to dismiss this event as a one-off occurrence. Moreover, this is a temptation which — logically — should be succumbed to. The teasing texture of Kvitova’s non-Wimbledon career should lead one to hold this Madrid championship at arm’s length, especially when one realizes that Madrid is now the one Premier Mandatory event Kvitova’s won more than once.
Yet, if you saw Kvitova smoothly belting the ball in the Madrid semifinals and finals, in a manner reminiscent of her 55-minute destruction of Eugenie Bouchard in the 2014 Wimbledon final, you know that at 25, she’s capable of being a regularly dominant player. Losing only five games to Serena, and then unloading 33 winners in a 6-2, 6-1 beatdown of Kuznetsova in Saturday’s final (Kuznetsova won only 33 total POINTS in the match…), tells you everything you need to know about the heights Kvitova can scale when she’s on.
As was the case in that Wimbledon final against Bouchard, a blowout did not mean that a women’s singles final was played at a poor level. Kvitova’s quality is what created the lopsided scoreline. Kuznetsova, like Bouchard 10 months ago, lost because her opponent flourished, not because she failed in any profound sense.
Will “Madrid exceptionalism” flow to the French Open this year, or will Kvitova maintain this level of form and create a dynamic akin to 2014, when a Sharapova-Halep final in Spain was replayed on the terre battue of France? That’s the question of the moment on the WTA Tour, a query echoed by Kuznetsova’s surprising run to the final. Kuznetsova’s wonderful week in Madrid was marked by marathon victories over Samantha Stosur and Lucie Safarova, the stern tests which preceded the unexpected dismantling of Sharapova in the semis.
Sharapova and Serena contested the 2013 French Open final. After both getting blasted off the court in the Madrid semifinals, they certainly hope that “Madrid exceptionalism” becomes a reality a few weeks from now.
The one other major story to emerge from the Madrid Open on the women’s side was Victoria Azarenka’s near-upset of Serena on Wednesday. Azarenka — reminding everyone why she has been Serena’s best foil on tour — fought back from a one-set deficit and a 3-0 deficit in the third set to earn three match points at 6-5, 40-love in the final stanza. Serena played two quality points to get the score to 40-30 on Azarenka’s serve, but then the two-time Australian Open champion double-faulted three straight times to hand over the break of serve. Serena pulled away in the subsequent match tiebreaker, and Azarenka — trying to move upward in the world rankings so that she can face Serena in semifinals rather than preliminary-round situations — absorbed the biggest stomach punch of her post-injury life.
Azarenka’s signature tenacity — the very quality which has enabled her to compete with Serena on relatively even terms over the years — should enable her to overcome this setback. Yet, the fact remains that:
A) Azarenka didn’t get the points and rankings boosts she so easily could have attained with a victory over Serena, and a subsequently deeper run in the Madrid bracket;
B) she has a haunting image she must now deal with in future crunch-time moments.
Expect Azarenka to overcome, but don’t deny the possibility that her comeback bid might take a little longer than previously hoped.