On the ATP Tour, everyone knows that Madrid is not Rafael Nadal’s favorite clay-court tournament. The elevation, the bounces, and the nature of the surface inside The Magic Box have made Madrid different from Rome and Roland Garros. Nadal did not get to play Madrid as a clay-court event until 2009, but even then, nine seasons in La Caja Magica have not produced the same runaway success Nadal has enjoyed at his La Decima destinations or even in Rome, where he has won seven titles, still an absurd number. Nadal has won four Madrid clay titles, which is a lot, but modest compared to his otherworldly achievements at other clay tour stops.
Novak Djokovic has had to settle for a number of runner-up plates at the French Open, thanks to Rafa and — in 2015 — Stan Wawrinka. Given that he has won only one French Open, a comparative lack of clay Masters titles might not come across as inconsistent or incongruent with his Roland Garros track record. Yet, Djokovic — through the end of his foremost prime period in June of 2016 — became known as the master of the Masters, the man who dismantled the competition in those nine 1,000-point tournaments. Djokovic’s Masters excellence — the product of his conspicuous weekly consistency — was impossible to ignore in the six seasons (2011-2016) when he was usually (not always, but usually) the best tennis player in the world. Yet, from that consistency came only two Madrid titles — at his greatest heights in 2011 and 2016 — and four Rome titles, three in his prime period (2011, 2014 and 2015) plus an early-period surprise in 2008.
Given how central Nadal and Djokovic have been in the ATP’s clay-court conversation since Madrid became a clay event in 2009, these two tournaments have not been “money in the bank” the way Monte Carlo has been for Rafa (an 11-time winner in the principality) and the way Miami and Indian Wells were for Djokovic before his health problems caught up with him midway through the 2016 season, carrying through the last two years. To that extent, Madrid and Rome have not been surefire indicators of either Roland Garros success or overall form for the two best male clay-court players of this decade.
On the WTA Tour, the same claim holds up under scrutiny.
On one hand, Maria Sharapova did win either Madrid (2014) or Rome (2012) en route to a Roland Garros title weeks later in Europe. Serena Williams made a semifinal-or-better run at one of the two tournaments before winning at Roland Garros in 2013 and 2015. On the other hand, however, Petra Kvitova has twice won in Madrid this decade yet not accompanied that title with a deep run in Paris — Petra made the fourth round at Roland Garros in each of her two Madrid title years. Garbine Muguruza made the semifinals of Rome in 2016 and 2017 — one year she won the French, but the next year she crashed out in the fourth round of Roland Garros.
2016 French Open semifinalist Kiki Bertens didn’t win a single main-draw match in Madrid or Rome before getting hot in Paris. One of last year’s semifinalists, Timea Bacsinszky, didn’t get past the third round of either Madrid or Rome. Last year’s Roland Garros champion, Jelena Ostapenko, didn’t go beyond the second round in either Madrid or Rome.
Does a player need to go deep (semis or better) in at least one of the two upcoming events in Madrid or Rome to work out the kinks in time for Paris? The answer is inconclusive and very particular to each individual. A number of older veterans (Serena, Maria) have needed the match play, but players such as Bertens and Bacsinszky have shown that match play in either Madrid or Rome (if not both cities) is hardly a prerequisite for Roland Garros success.
The Madrid-Rome puzzle becomes even more complicated when realizing how little Elina Svitolina’s Premier Mandatory or Premier 5 success in 2017 pointed the path to her results at majors. That same disconnect between Premier Mandatory or 5 results and major results can also be found in double 2017 major semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe, who has never made the semifinals of any Premier Mandatory/5 tournament.
The bottom line: While it is certainly true that some players definitely need matches in these next two weeks in Madrid and Rome, not all players have to loosen up the joints and get their pistons pushing at full speed. Many can wait for Paris and find form then, taking advantage of off days to recuperate between matches and gradually build a level of form which enables them to compete for the title in the City of Light.
Madrid and Rome — for the WTA, not just the ATP — can shrug their shoulders and say of their relationship to Roland Garros, “It’s complicated.”
Image taken from Zimbio.com