Nadal: For the second time in three years, the king of clay emphatically halted a frustrating title drought at the tournament where he has won eight of his record-setting 20 Masters 1000 titles and 42 consecutive matches. Those staggering statistics speak for themselves, testifying to one player’s dominance over an elite event unparalleled in the current era. On this occasion, though, Nadal’s historic dominance mattered less than the victory over the nemesis who had defeated him in three straight major finals and twice on clay last year. While Djokovic clearly brought only a diluted version of his usual self to this match, the world #2 still will have benefited enormously from the psychological boost gained by halting his seven-match losing streak to the Serb. Outside the latter’s most fervent fans, followers of the sport also should welcome this hint of a momentum shift in a rivalry that lately had verged on becoming no rivalry at all. When the top two men meet for the 32nd time, intrigue and suspense will have joined the expectations of high-quality tennis that surround their meetings but that cannot alone sustain a rivalry for long.
Djokovic: While the end of his dominance over Rafa might have seemed like cause for concern, the world #1 in fact deserves credit for playing this tournament all the way to its conclusion. En route to Sunday’s final, Djokovic twice rallied from one-set deficits despite the emotional burden of his grandfather’s death. Credit to him for not withdrawing from the tournament as he had considered, and for accepting his first defeat to Nadal since the 2010 US Open with grace and equanimity. Although disappointing for the spectators, his tepid effort in the final should not deplete his confidence. Once he travels home and gains personal closure with his loss, Djokovic should return to the courts ever more focused on the lofty goals ahead and perhaps more motivated than ever as well.
Berdych: Not known for mental fortitude, the world #7 (soon to be world #6) smothered Murray in a three-set, three-hour epic that illustrated an unexpected tenacity and his skill at penetrating the slow court with his groundstrokes. Berdych generated remarkable power from behind the baseline, hammering winners that penetrated the Scot’s defenses before troubling Djokovic a round later until his fallibility as a front-runner betrayed him. In six clay matches this year, he has defeated three top-25 opponents and imposed his playing style on a surface poorly suited to it, much as he did when reaching the 2010 Roland Garros semifinal. When the battlegrounds shift to the faster surface and thinner air of Madrid, the Czech might well become the leading threat there to the stranglehold of the top three.
Kvitova: Having won three-setters against Lisicki and Goerges in the Fed Cup quarterfinals, the Czech leading lady ousted two more top-25 opponents in Errani and Schiavone to secure her nation’s second straight berth in a Fed Cup final. The defending champions will host that tie and enter it as heavy favorites simply on the strength of Kvitova’s indoor winning streak, which now spans three tournaments and five Fed Cup ties. More importantly, the victories may have revived her flagging self-belief in the wake of a frustrating spring and on the eve of defending a marquee title in Madrid.
Jankovic: Even as her results in WTA tournaments plunge, this resolute Fed Cup campaigner continues to register key victories against worthy opponents in difficult settings. Winless in three previous meetings with Pavlyuchenkova, Jankovic cruised past her comfortably to earn the first point for Serbia. Then, she routed two-time major champion Kuznetsova to secure her nation’s debut appearance in a Fed Cup final. Long are the odds against them there, but Jankovic often has declared her desire to win a title for Serbia and will spare no effort in the attempt. If she can achieve that feat, it would represent one of her most satisfying accomplishments in personal if perhaps not professional terms.
Australian women: In the hostile territory of Stuttgart’s indoor clay, Stosur and the perpetually unpredictable Gajdosova mauled the favored hosts without dropping a set. Among their victims were Indian Wells semifinalist and two-time 2012 titlist Kerber as well as Dubai finalist and defending Stuttgart champion Goerges. Neither of the Australian women had enjoyed a season as impressive as those of either German woman, while both had struggled before with the pressures of Fed Cup, perhaps mitigated this time by playing away from home. For Stosur especially, these exploits in Stuttgart should lift her spirits before a clay season in which she can wreak havoc if she plays at full potential.
Petkovic: After a concerning back injury, the ebullient musician, dancer, politician, and tennis player returned to the profession where she has garnered the most success so far. Easily dispatched by Stosur, Petkovic must discipline herself to stay positive through likely adversity as she regains the rhythm on her strokes. Considering the charismatic personality that has won her so many fans, that task should not prove difficult.
Murray: Thoroughly impressive in the first two rounds, the Scot who resembled Samson suddenly looked thoroughly vulnerable when he encountered an elite opponent in Berdych. Unable to preserve a one-set lead, Murray lost both of the second and third sets by double-break margins as his inescapable fatalism returned. Surprisingly dangerous on clay in 2011, he appeared to have regressed from those improvements in 2012 and certainly fell well short of a level that could challenge the three men ranked above him. Murray’s struggles here demonstrated once again that champions on this surface cannot rely exclusively on defense but must possess a punishing offense as well.
Ivanovic: Less than 24 hours removed from an unsightly loss to Kuznetsova on Saturday, the Serbian #1 lost the first five games to Pavlyuchenkova on Saturday. Another Fed Cup disaster loomed amid emerging parallels to her debacle in Belgrade when these two nations last clashed. But Ivanovic found the courage to persevere, completely altering the momentum of the match and tie when she recovered to reel off 13 of the next 14 games. A turning point for Serbia’s fortunes, this victory represented nothing nearly so significant for her in view of Pavlyuchenkova’s horrific 2012 (see below). All the same, this comeback allowed her to start the clay season on a reasonably bright note and may build her confidence for future occasions when she starts matches in such dreadful fashion.
Schiavone: Struggling to string together victories at WTA events this year, this flagship of a former Fed Cup champion has not lost her appetite for the competition. On an indoor hard court with the odds stacked heavily against her, Schiavone did everything in her power to bewitch, bedazzle, and bewilder her younger, more powerful foes. Had her signature artistry won her just a few more points late in sets, this tie would have become considerably more compelling.
Kuznetsova: With her squad trailing 0-1 on Saturday, the Russian #2 faced a must-win second rubber against Ivanovic, who had won all of their previous clay meetings and thrashed her in Beijing last fall. Able to edge through a three-set rollercoaster to level the tie, Kuznetsova claimed her nation’s only live rubber of the weekend and caused many observers to consider the hosts favored to prevail on Sunday. What a difference a day made, though, as the same situation of a 1-2 deficit and a must-win match inspired a dismal performance from a player who had won 19 of 26 Fed Cup singles rubbers. With an opponent across the net seeking her first Cup final, Kuznetsova failed to exert the pressure on Jankovic that could have unlocked some untimely nerves and extended the tie to a live doubles rubber that Russia likely would have won.
French men: Not only did Simon reach his first Masters 1000 semifinal on clay, but he did not buckle to Nadal once he arrived there. In an era when Frenchmen have distinguished themselves for their fecklessness on their nation’s dominant surface, this performance represented something unusual and especially commendable. The counterpuncher’s presence at that stage, on the other hand, occurred in part as a result of an abysmal, almost unwatchable effort by Tsonga that exposed all of his classically French flaws on clay. Chapeau, Gilles—mais zut alors, Jo!
Ferrer: At a tournament where he had reached the semifinal in 2010 and reached the final in 2011, the Spaniard could not recapture the form that had brought him two clay titles in South America, or even the form that brought him to a Miami quarterfinal last month. Crushed by Bellucci like the red brick beneath his feet, Ferrer missed a golden opportunity to shine in a draw with no Federer, a deflated Djokovic, and Nadal far away in the other half.
Pavlyuchenkova: After her breakthrough season with two major quarterfinals (Roland Garros and the US Open), one might have expected her to suffer a sophomore slump in 2012. A 2-10 record in completed matches takes that concept to an unnecessary extreme, though. Without any injury or apparent personal upheaval, Pavlyuchenkova’s utter collapse in both form and confidence should raise some eyebrows.
Moscow surface: Not even winning the support of the home team that chose it, this indoor clay court contributed substantially to this semifinal’s underwhelming level of tennis. All four of the singles players ranked in the top 30, and none acquitted herself at a level worthy of her pedigree. As suspenseful, intriguing, and unpredictable as the tie became, one would have preferred to see a somewhat higher quality of tennis in a World Group semifinal.