Road to Rogers Cup : Djokovic reigns supreme

Tuesday, May 14

Welcome to Road to Rogers Cup, the weekly roundup of all the action on the ATP Tour ahead of the 2019 Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at IGA Stadium from August 2 to 11.

This week, we’re recapping the season’s fourth Masters 1000 tournament, the Mutua Madrid Open.

Photo : Mutua Madrid Open

Last week : Djokovic reigns supreme

Rundown

The ATP Tour touched down in the Spanish capital for the season’s second major clay court contest. The longstanding clay season pecking order has been off-kilter all spring, and there was no telling who would lift the winner’s trophy.

The King of Clay was a cautious contender on Manolo Santana Court. Battle weary after recent setbacks in Monaco (Fognini) and Barcelona (Thiem), Rafael Nadal faced a tough first match. He was pitted against Canadian sensation Félix Auger-Aliassime, fresh off solid clay court victories earned in South America and a categorical win over his countryman Denis Shapovalov in round 1.

When all was said and done, the local superstar easily passed his first test (6-3, 6-3). Our very own hometown hero showed tremendous promise despite the defeat. All eyes on Félix Auger-Aliassime at his next event, which will hopefully come sooner rather than later.

As for the rest of the field, things generally went according to plan, except for some surprising (Daniil Medvedev) and less surprising (Juan Martin del Potro back after weeks of absence and a worrisome knee injury) early exits.

Speaking of comebacks, Roger Federer, who had been a no-show since 2016, made his return to clay in Madrid. The 20-time Grand Slam champion was going in blind but still building on solid momentum from Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami. His match against Gasquet (also on the comeback trail) didn’t seem like a dauting tasks and, in the end, wasn’t. Providing some reassurance as to his current level on clay, Fed repeated his performance in the next round against Monfils, who is returning to form and just happened to hit the shot of the tournament.

There was a rush of emotions on Manolo Santana Court as David Ferrer brought his career to a close. Defeating fellow Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round was a triumph, but toppling titleholder Alexander Zverev was too tall an order. In any case, like the final score, the outcome is secondary. The rousing ovation by the fans who filled the Caja Magica and his peers spoke volumes about the brave Spaniard and the career on which he embarked nearly 20 years ago. Adios y gracias, Ferru.

In the quarters, six of the top eight seeds were still in the mix, along with Marin Cilic (9) and Stanislas Wawrinka, who ousted Kei Nishikori.

Cilic’s withdrawal gave Djokovic an unexpected day off before taking on Dominic Thiem, who overpowered Roger Federer in an exciting match that may have depleted the Austrian’s reserves. In the final four, the Djoker edged Thiem in two tiebreaks.

The bottom of the draw featured a Next Gen clash in which Tsitsipas triumphed over Zverev and a match between two members of the old guard, as Nadal trounced Wawrinka (6-1, 6-2) with an ease he had yet to demonstrate this season. Rafa seemed to be on course to win the title, but Stefanos didn’t get the memo. Nadal, who had given Tsitsipas a tennis clinic in the semis of the Australian Open, ended up falling in a thunderous defeat as the Greek superstar secured his spot in his second Masters 1000 final after Toronto in 2018 (also against Nadal).

Before Madrid, Djokovic and Tsitsipas had only met once, at the 2018 Rogers Cup in Toronto, where the young gun showed the recently crowned Wimbledon champion the door. Fresh off his win over Rafa, Tsitsi was practically the favourite to take the top honours, but only if you didn’t account for all the matches he had played over the past few weeks (including his conquest in Estoril a week earlier) and his lack of sleep (semifinal the day before that ended just before midnight). Without dropping a set, Nole rose to the occasion with surgical precision and didn’t give Tsitsipas any chances. He claimed his 33rd Masters 1000 title, tying Nadal for the record. The World No.1’s confirmation should come in Rome, unless the cards are reshuffled.

For the record

  • Dimitrov and Vallverdu part ways : Ejected in the first round by Taylor Fritz, the 27-year-old Bulgarian drew some conclusions from his less than stellar start to the season and decided to part ways with his coach, Dani Vallverdu. The winner of the 2017 ATP Finals doesn’t have much time to get his game back on track before he risks going from Baby Fed to fallen talent.
  • Madrid proves inconclusive for Roger Federer : After coming back from two match points against Monfils on his way to the quarters, the Maestro squandered just as many in the next round against Thiem before admitting defeat. The very definition of emotional roller coaster.
Photo : Mutua Madrid Open

This week : to Rome !

The Internazionali BNL d’Italia—a final rehearsal before Roland-Garros—brings the best of the best back to sea level (Madrid is 650 metres above) for one more practice run before the major test on clay.

Observers and players agree that the court conditions are generally similar to the surface in Paris, so the showdowns in Rome should provide some clues as to the operating forces leading into the season’s second Grand Slam.

Eight-time champion and reigning titleholder Rafael Nadal remains the favourite to win, even though Novak Djokovic has tremendous momentum, many, many ranking points more than the Spaniard and a habit of playing inspired tennis in the Italian capital (four titles and four other final appearances). There’s perhaps a little less pressure on 2017 champion Alexander Zverev, who will no doubt be looking to re-take the crown after a slow start to the season.

And let’s not forget local star Fabio Fognini. In Monte Carlo, he proved that he was more than just a court jester with a short fuse.

Photo : Mutua Madrid Open

Canadian contingent

After their head-to-head in the first round in Madrid, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov will make their way to the Foro Italico for a new episode of the Masters 1000. Missing in action will be Milos Raonic, who’s still nursing a right knee injury.

Their countrymen Brayden Schnur and Filip Peliwo will be competing in the Gwangju Open Challenger in South Korea, while Peter Polansky will hit the courts at the Neckarcup Challenger in Heilbronn, Germany. We will also be following Steven Diez’s progress as he takes part in the Lisboa Belem Open.

(Feature photo : AFP/Getty Images)

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