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Tennis is in the middle of clay court season. Last year Novak Djokovic stunned everyone by continuing his winning streak on Rafael Nadal's best surface—beating Nadal on the red clay of Madrid and Rome. This year, Djokovic has been less dominant, losing to Nadal in Monte Carlo, and losing early in Madrid. So Djokovic should be motivated to defend his points this week at Rome—the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.
Everyone in tennis, except her immediate rivals, was happy when Victoria Azarenka took the number one ranking with a win at the Australian Open. By and large, Azarenka has been a deserving champion, playing well and winning often. Maria Sharapova has been a steady #2 and defeated Azarenka at Stuttgart. I expected Petra Kvitova to contend for #1, but instead Kvitova has dropped to #4, losing to many players, while Agnieska Radwanska has risen to #3, losing only to Azarenka. Samantha Stosur has quietly floated around #5. Despite her promise to come back to #1, Caroline Wozniacki has slipped to #8 and has been losing about a round earlier in many tournaments, and to lower-ranked players like Lucie Safarova, Julia Goerges, Ana Ivanovic and Angelique Kerber.
But if you thought the women's tour was now a settled meritocracy, at Madrid a newly fit #9 Serena Williams just sliced through Sharapova and Azarenka, beating each of them soundly 6-1, 6-3 in matches that weren't even close. I don't think Serena likes blondes, but I'll bet she likes the blue clay.
On the red clay there were three nasty injuries. Andrea Petkovic had just come back from lower back injuries then went down with a serious ankle sprain at Stuttgart. At Monte Carlo, both Juan Monaco and Julien Benneteau were playing well then went down with serious ankle sprains. I saw Benneteau's ankle just fold over like pair of socks while he was sliding for a ball in Monte Carlo. He also injured his wrist as he fell. It hurt just to watch.
While there were no massive ankle sprains on the new, blue clay at Madrid, even being watered twice per set it was both faster and more slippery than players expected. Ion Tiriac seems to run the tournament his own way. Instead of using young players as ball kids, he hired attractive young models. At times the cameramen seemed more intent on following the young women retrieving the balls than the ones hitting them. Instead of terre battue, the famous red clay, he asked for and received permission to experiment with Big Blue on all his courts. "Blue is a better court colour than other colours, better that the green-grey they call clay in the US and that brown stuff they use in India," he said. To accommodate television the tours have switched hardcourts from green to blue, so it does make sense to try the same for clay courts.
But Nadal went out early, to his countryman Verdasco, and Djokovic went out early, to his countryman Tipsarevic, and the final was played between Federer and fast-court player Tomas Berdych. While the ATP insists that the blue clay will eventually play like red clay, Djokovic and Nadal's coach, his uncle Toni, insist they will refuse to play on blue clay next year. As noted in the Heavy Topspin blog, service aces and third-shot winners were far more frequent on the blue clay than in years past on red clay. If you serve well, and the ball comes back weakly, you have a chance to end the point on the third shot. So third-shot winners are also an indication of a fast court.
Roger's victory at Madrid combined with early exits of the top two has temporarily propelled Federer to #2 in the world above Nadal. So earning points on the red clay of Rome becomes more important than expected to Djokovic and Nadal before the seeding for Roland Garros.