Rafa Nadal looks like the unconquerable king of clay as he crushes Juan Monaco in two near wipe-out sets at the Mutua de Madrid Wednesday, but Stanislaw Wawrinka, the other great clay court champ (victor at Monte Carlo over Roger Federer), is surprised by 20-year old Dominic Thiem, who comes back from a crushing first set, 1-6, to show what his backhand is made of as well as his deftness with drop shots at the net.
This is all the more remarkable inasmuch as Wawrinka has one of the best and most elegant (one-handed) backhands in today’s game, and you would have expected him to get the better of those crosscourt duels to each other’s left. But tennis is made of sudden surprises, and this season in particular has proven to be more of a free for all than most in recent years.
With Wawrinka, Australian Open champion, out, and Novak Djokovic out with an arm injury, and Roger Federer out due to paternity, Nadal has a clear shot at the Madrid title that he is defending. The hitch is that he was sluggish at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona and who can say. He looked fantastic against Monaco, but as far I know he never has lost to Monaco and, on the contrary, always handles him with brutal efficiency, notwithstanding they are friends, beating him at love or conceding one lonely game.
Italy’s Renaissance fantastico Fabio Fognini is out, after some characteristic vulgarity on court for which he might well have been ejected; but David Ferrer hung in there, as his wont, with a three-set victory over Albert Ramos, and maybe he will be the second of the great top-tens-but-not-top-fives (the first was Wawrinka at the Oz Open) to win against Nadal in a final. Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov, from non-tennis power nations (Japan and Bulgaria) are possible spoilers of such a final, and anyway Ferrer must beat American John Isner on Thursday; and for the denouement, we shall know on the weekend.
The owner of this tournament — which as tournaments go has had a somewhat oddball career, including years during which it was played in different cities (and countries) and on different surfaces — is the richest Romanian, Ion Tiriac, who with Ilie Nastase won the French Open doubles in 1970, even though he started out in his sports life as an ice hockey player. He and Nastase made Romania a Davis Cup threat in the ’70s, and he has been very good as a tennis establishment elder since retiring from sports and turning to business. Sports is by no means his main source of income, any more than it is Donald Sterling’s, the Los Angeles tycoon who was banned from all NBA events despite he still owns the Los Angeles Clippers, which the Association, under the forceful leadership of Adam Silver, is going to force him to sell. Mr. Silver replaced this year replaced David Stern, a replacement many observers felt was long overdue.
Well, professional sports cannot be run by anarchists, nor for that matter can amateur sports, so you need all kinds of forceful personalities who inevitably will catch flak for stepping on toes and for not stepping on toes. Better the NBA police itself than have the federals move in. If there were clear cases of discrimination, civil rights violations, and other reprehensible (and illegal) acts of commission and omission, okay, the law’s the law and you could have a case for federal prosecutions.
However, none of this is of moment at the moment, and the only question that matters is who will win the Mutua and move on toward Paris, seeing as how Rome is considered fairly second-tier and a warm up for the French Open. Serena Williams is looking good on the women’s side, but she better watch out for Carla Suarez-Navarro, a tough and cute rising Spanish star with something of a butch haircut and a breakthrough victory at the Portugal Open just a week ago. Not to mention several others, including Poland’s favorite top girl tennis player, Agnieszka Radwanska. The other great Polish hope, Jerzy Janowicz, lost in three wild sets to Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis in a battle of temperamental boys (neither as bad as Fognini); maybe the two of them, Mr. Pleszczynski suggests, ought to give some advice to their governments on standing up to the nearby bully.
Life goes on, squared. Roger and Mirka Federer are happy parents again, and again with a set: twins Leo and Lenny will soon join Myla Rose and Charlene Riva in cheering their dad on at tournaments to come. Not to get sentimental at so hardnosed a place as The American Spectator, but in extending our congratulations we are reminded of the duty to promote life in all its glory and simplicity. Thus too we are saddened at the passing of a great British player, Ukrainian-born Eltena Baltacha, a beautiful and courageous model athlete who succumbed to disease last week. She was 30 years old.