Roger Federer dominated the Madrid Open, the Mutua de Madrid, like an Old Pro (even though he is 30), adapting to everything every opponent threw at him and never losing his tactical finesse. He ended with a flawless performance against a powerful hitter, Tomas Berdych, who had good grounds to hope this might be his time, with momentum going into the final and with a respectable record (three wins in five meetings) against the best player of his time. In tennis, as in most things , it cannot be your day every day, and for a player like Berdych, who is one of these champions who is superb but whose stars have put him in a generation that includes several others just a bit more superb — he is currently ranked No.7 and is half a foot taller than the tall Swiss genius — there is the inevitable hope as play begins, even as 99 percent of the mind is focused on the immediate point, that this will be your day and the other fellow’s was yesterday.
Interestingly, it was rather the same on the ladies’ side, with the other best-of-her-time, Serena Williams, going into the final after a week of giving demonstrations on how to play anybody against a power hitter (like herself) who has been having a terrific run so far, Victoria Azarenka, who is No. 1 in the WTA and was on a roll after demolishing another fine player, if a screamer, the tall and Porsche-driving Maria Sharapova. I cannot certify that she drives a Porsche, but she did win one, indeed by beating Miss Azarenka at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart a couple of weeks ago. She won money too, which she is likely to enjoy, but also some of it she will plow into her business ventures.
Amateur sports are fine and they may represent a certain kind of moral fitness. This is an Olympic year, which is one very good reason why it is fortunate the host-city re-elected one of the era’s major tennis writers and players, Boris Johnson, to its mayoralty, over his notorious — or famous, if you are on the left of the British left — opponent, ex-two term mayor Ken Livingstone, who is not a sporting man, in any sense of the term.
Olympic years bring out controversies about amateurism v. professionalism in sports. One may doubt if anyone really understands the distinction. The national and international sport federations do not help matters by allowing Federer and Williams to compete in the Olympic tennis events, but if you are a sprinter, Hermes (aka Mercury) help you if you are spotted — photographed — guzzling Poland Spring water or Naked cranberry juice while wearing your gold medal, or even your silver or bronze.
If you are Federer or Williams, this is not your problem; yours is but to play and win. The same goes for the basketball and baseball players who are selected. The argument for making these Olympic sports has never been persuasive, but that is neither here nor there. Now for some, the erasing of the boundaries between amateurs and pros is a welcome step toward candor and honesty. They consider that amateurism was, in its heyday — arbitrarily, we may date this from the inception of the modern Olympics (Baron Coubertin, 1890s, Baden Powell and all that sort of thing) to the end-of-amateurs-only Olympics with the replacement of college basketball players with pros in the 1990s — a sham. It was, they claim, dishonest. Men like Avery Brundage and Juan Antonio Samaranch were phonies who behaved like Moses toward players they could lord it over (Americans, typically) while looking the other way at the professional amateurs produced by the communistic regimes of eastern Europe and Cuba, plus these same were responsible for introducing body-altering drugs into sports.
Hypocrisy is the homage paid by vice to virtue, and as in other 20th century phoniness, such as Wilsonian democracy-promotion (though with less terrible consequences), sports shamateurism, as it was called, provided a criterion, a moral compass. What we now have is money.
What we now have is Ion Tiriac, a rich Romanian. The former champion hockey player who had a brilliant career in tennis at the beginning of the Open era (late 1960s) became a hugely successful entrepreneur and, in a life-phase not unfamiliar to sports fans in our country, decided he wanted to have an active part of his old sport. In football you buy a team, like Mr. Snyder, the Redskins owner. In tennis you can invest in a player, hoping to get him into the hands eventually of a sports management agency like International Management Group founded by Mark McCormack, or you can invest in a tournament, such as the Mutua Madrid, which is what Mr. T. did.
He is shrewd, a not uncommon character trait among Transylvanians, and he recognized the potential payoff of investing in a Spanish tournament. The Mutua Madrid is a Masters 1000 category, not peanuts for money and ranking points. Tennis is still booming in Spain, which is likely to remain a dominant power in the sport for at least another decade as young players emulate the mighty Rafael Nadal. Andy Murray, the mighty Scot champion, praises Spain’s tennis program for the way it pushes its young players instead of coddling them, as the British tennis federation does (according to Murray), undercutting their competitive drive. I will have to check with Mayor Johnson on that, as he has given some thought to the tax regimes in different countries and what this does to the competitive choices players make. Of course, this depends on him inviting me to his box at Wimbledon this year, and without falling into pessimism I have to admit he may have other matters on his mind — such as managing the fantastic bonanza the Olympics represents for London even while keeping a dedicated line open at all times to the constabulary in charge of security — and Mr. Tyrrell, with his new book out (highly recommended summer reading, if I may depart from amateurism for a moment), is not going to have time to put in a few calls to his friend — whom he and I both tried to draft for the Republican presidential nomination, the mayor being a New York native — and mention my case. So much for the boss’s clout, but then this is London we are talking about, not Chicago.
So anyway, Spanish tennis and all that. Mr. T., having bought into the Madrid tournament, whose previous inconvenience was the altitude of the old Castillian capital, added to the difficulties by redesigning the clay on which it is played. He chose blue, for its telegenic qualities. The theory is that you can see the ball better against the blue background if you are watching on TV.
Players do not watch on TV, and they never complained about not being able to see the ball against the traditional red clay. Moreover, you could imagine changing the color of the balls instead of the surface, if you wanted something to make it easier for the TV audiences, not that this was ever an issue during previous clay court seasons. But what you gonna do, he’s got the dough.
Many observers pointed out that the color, as such, was not that big a deal anyway, and many hard-court season tournaments are played on blue surfaces. What the athletes complained about, however, no sooner had they tried out the courts at Madrid’s futuristic Caja Majica, was the texture: apparently, something happens when the crushed stone we call clay is oxidized to make the dye stick, and it creates a material that is simultaneously slippery and uneven. Serena Williams asserted she felt she was skating; the mighty Serb champion, Novak Djokovic, said he felt he needed cleats and ought to be training with Chuck Norris, who sadly will not be SecDef because Gov. Huckabee is making big bucks on TV and is not running for president, which he cannot complain about since he, too, made the big bucks on TV, at the cost of his amateur status in martial arts.
Roger Federer maintained his characteristic reserve and did not say much about the courts, but his old rival and friend, Rafa Nadal, who from time to time has wished out loud that Federer would be more vocal about issues of concern to the players, saw red before even trying out the blue, after which he went ballistic. He did not like them, he said at first, because he is a man of habit and tradition (which is true; he even lines up his drinks at court side in the same way every time), and it does not make sense to change a tradition like this just a fortnight before the culmination of the clay season at the French Internationaux, which are played at Paris’ Roland Garros stadium.
The great Nadal, who has been the dominant clay court player for several years, and who was just coming off winning the Monte Carlo tournament against his 2011 nemesis the great Djokovic (everyone’s nemesis, actually), did okay for a match or two but fell apart in third round match against his friend and compatriot Fernando Verdasco, who came from behind, 2-5, in the last set to finally win one against the master. It took something out of him, though, because Berdych then proceeded to dispatch Verdasco easily in the quarters, even as Federer was giving a lesson to another Spaniard, David Ferrer. Meanwhile Djokovic was getting it from his countryman Janko Tipsarevic. Which is where we came in, more or less.
The top Spaniard and the top Serb both said they would snub the Madrid event next year if the courts did not revert to normal, and Mr. T. allowed as how there were some kinks there that had to be fixed, and he took full responsibility. That was sporting of him. He did mention that conditions were the same for everybody, which is the kind of thing amateurs used to say when they went through a tough patch.