All dreams must come to an end, as must the grand fantasy created by Ion Tiriac in a tournament unlike any other. Before we close the Magic Box and wake up to the realities of Rome’s red clay, however, two fascinating finals will provide a climax fitting for a week so soaked in drama.
Azarenka vs. Serena: The second member of her family to reach the Madrid final in the last three years, Serena may experience a sense of déjà vu when she catches sight of her opponent. For the second time in three matches, she faces a tall, leggy blonde from Eastern Europe who accompanies each of her strokes with a distinctive soundtrack. But Azarenka does not resemble Sharapova in many key respects, such as her fluid movement, talent for improvising during rallies, and ability to return shots with depth even when stretched out of position or on the run. For those reasons, Serena cannot rely on finishing points as efficiently against the Belarussian as she did against the Russian. Once the rally begins, she will need to hit more than one or two shots to penetrate her fellow finalist’s defenses. While the court will aid the American’s cause, especially on shots down the line, she may need to construct points more thoughtfully and craft a more developed strategy.
From a glance at their previous seven meetings, though, one finds dominance almost as thorough as in the Sharapova context. Although her only victory came on a significant occasion, in the Miami final three years ago, Vika never has defeated a fully healthy Serena. She has tested severely at two different Australian Opens, winning the first set each time before retiring from heat illness on one occasion and letting a double-break lead slip away in the second set of the other. Somewhat concerning for Azarenka’s fans is the recent trend of their last two meetings, won in relatively straightforward fashion by Serena on North American hard courts last summer. At the Rogers Cup, the brash Belarussian threatened early but faded late. At the US Open, the American throttled her rival in the initial stages, probably should have won resoundingly, but faltered at the eleventh hour and needed a tiebreak to seal the victory. Despite those divergent patterns, both clashes suggested that Serena’s best form transcends anything that Azarenka can muster while revealing her vulnerability to Vika when she falls something short of her best.
Explaining her overall superiority through seven meetings is the veteran’s serve, still the single most valuable shot in the WTA. On the slick blue clay of Madrid, she has lost her serve just once in her last six sets and repeatedly found overwhelming first serves when opponents have started to accumulate momentum. Facing break point late in a close second set against Sharapova, she struck a second-serve ace. Under pressure at 5-5, 0-30 in the first set of her semifinal, she uncorked four consecutive service winners. Lacking this luxury, Azarenka cannot expect to extract herself from predicaments with a single mighty swing. She has struck a handful of aces this week but has struggled to maximize her modest serve at potential turning points, even double-faulting twice on break point in her semifinal. Punished by Sharapova’s fierce return in the Stuttgart final, the world #1 will need to maintain a high first-serve percentage if she wants to avoid a similar fate at the hands of Serena’s equally fierce replies. As Wozniacki learned earlier this week, movement and consistency will avail little if the point ends before the rally effectively begins.
On more conventional red clay, this match might unfold in an entirely different way. On the unique blue clay that Serena once ridiculed, however, she should earn plenty of opportunities to dictate points for better or for worse. The 13-time major champion shines most brightly when she can combine those opportunities with a motivation that heightens her focus, and the opportunity to deliver a statement in a marquee final against the world #1 should provide just that sort of motivation. In the final stages of her career, Serena has summoned her signature steeliness for non-majors more effectively than she did in her prime, no longer reserving her best tennis for just four tournaments. When 2012 began, she looked disinterested, weary, and barely relevant. Those who discounted her for good then may find themselves ambushed once more.
Federer vs. Berdych: Aiming to tie Rafa for Masters 1000 titles and surpass him in the rankings, the current world #3 has cruised effortlessly through the draw after flirting with disaster in his opener. Since the first set of his first match, Federer has not lost his serve to any of four opponents, and he has faced just three break points in his last three victories—a staggering statistic to which the fast court has contributed. Almost as bulletproof behind his serve is his opponent, who has surrendered just two service games in the tournament and rained 15 aces upon a befuddled Del Potro in the semifinals. Not losing a set this week, Berdych wasted no time in capitalizing upon a section of the draw vacated by Nadal to charge into the weekend while spending barely three hours on the court. The Czech probably benefited from his freshness both mentally and physically in a tense duel with the Argentine, who had seemed the favorite on this surface. Through two clay Masters 1000 tournaments, though, Berdych has accumulated seven victories in an ominous statement of intent.
Viewed from the perspective of career statistics, Federer enters this final as the overwhelming favorite. He pursues his 75th total title and 20th Masters shield, whereas Berdych seeks just his eighth career title and second Masters shield. Not since 2005 has the Czech won a tournament of this magnitude, and not in more than two years has he reached a Masters final. When he last did, though, that Miami achievement came in part at the Swiss legend’s expense, as did his only major final appearance at Wimbledon in 2010. At both of those tournaments, Berdych suffocated Federer with his serve-forehand combinations and played with a courage too little displayed in a career of underachievement. As the 16-time major champion learned the hard way, few players can crush a tennis ball with the ferocity of the broad-shouldered Czech, who has won three of their last five meetings after losing the previous eight. Just when Federer appeared to have solved him for good, the man who inflicted a painful defeat on him at the Olympics made him a casualty of a mid-career surge.
Although this surge caused many to believe that Berdych had conquered his inner demons conclusively, he soon proved otherwise by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory later in that summer of 2010. Unable to finish off a match against Federer at the Rogers Cup, the Wimbledon runner-up of a month before again succumbed to his nerves. In matches against elite opponents since then, Berdych has continued to struggle chronically with converting opportunities that could shift the momentum decisively in his favor. (For recent evidence, one need look no further than a makeable volley that would have given him a two-set lead over Nadal in the Australian Open quarterfinal this year.) On Saturday, by contrast, he found a vital nugget of resolve by eking out both tiebreaks against Del Potro despite his previous lack of success against him. Only by bringing that same combination of composure and fearlessness into the final can he threaten an opponent who has excelled throughout his career in neutralizing strong servers with otherwise straightforward games. An underrated volleyer, Berdych should aim to finish points at net on his terms rather than succumbing to the lure of Federer’s low, shallow slices. By hammering at his opponent’s backhand with his inside-out forehand, he can open the forehand corner towards which the Swiss moves less well. On the other hand, Federer’s inside-out forehand will reap rewards if it forces Berdych to take one of his hands off the racket on his two-hander.
Like Serena, Federer has begun to bring a level of tennis once reserved for majors to other tournaments, of which he has won three already this year. One wonders how much urgency and desire Berdych will feel to improve upon a week outstanding even by his standards, but one cannot doubt the determination with which the former #1 will aim for the #2 ranking and a title that he won three years ago. Although his challenger likely will threaten at times, the greatest player in the history of tennis should finish the week as the greatest player in the history of blue clay.
There will be no post-tournament review of Madrid, which stands alone among the surrounding landscape of events as a monument to one man’s idiosyncratic imagination and boundless ambition. See you in Rome shortly.