Mayhem in Madrid as nothing goes according to plan for the stars

SPANISH Rafael Nadal answers to journalists during a press conference. | AFP

SPANISH Rafael Nadal answers to journalists during a press conference. | AFP

Published May 4, 2024


Deborah Curtis-Setchell

THE Madrid Open, featuring Spain’s greatest tennis player Rafael Nadal making his ‘Last Stand’ on Spanish soil, and the heir to his clay-court throne, Carlos Alcaraz – both having announced the possibility they will join forces in the doubles at the forthcoming Paris Olympics – was always going to be a carefully choreographed and auspicious occasion.

The King (Nadal, the real one) was present, a slew of Real Madrid football royalty, and the entire Nadal and Alcaraz families were out in force, joining the adoring crowd on Court Manolo Santana in a Mexican wave and responding to the fist-pumping of their heroes in their respective matches.

It was collectively anticipated that these glorious gladiators – Nadal, who has won this tournament five times, and Alcaraz, who has won the last two titles – would face off in the final stages. But, as in life, tennis seldom goes according to plan.

The national elation of Nadal beating world No 11 Alex de Minaur 7-6, 6-3 – the Australian having felled the Spaniard 7-6, 6-1 in Barcelona the week before – appeared to ebb under spectator pressure in the Madrid sequel as Rafa was comprehensively scalped in the fourth round by dangerous Czech Jiri Lehecka.

Lehecka is coached by former player Tomas Berdych, one of the few to claim victory over Nadal in his heyday. While the tears and the banners marking the King of Clay’s Madrid titles rolled down, Nadal himself made it clear that this was not yet the final curtain.

He’s still toying with the notion of catching up to Novak Djokovic’s record 24 Grand Slam wins, and this is a smoke-and-mirrors exit from centre stage.

“I will play Roland Garros (starting on May 26) if I feel competitive. If I can play, I play. If I can’t play, I can’t. It won’t be the end of the world, or the end of my career...”

This despite the fact that the writing is leaping off the wall.

Perhaps a bigger shock to Spanish pride was Alcaraz’s subsequent quarter-final defeat to lower ranked Andrey Rublev, who played his most composed match of the year, fighting from a set down and ruthlessly forcing the defending champion to fall on his sword, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

What was more significant about Alcaraz’s loss is that he handed Daniil Medvedev a step up the ladder in the world rankings to No 3.

Ironically, Medvedev pulled a groin muscle in his quarter-final clash against Lehecka and was forced to retire in order to be able to defend his 1000 ranking points in Rome next week.

Meanwhile, adding to the dampener of this Madrid fiesta was the news that top seeded Jannik Sinner also withdrew from the last eight citing a hip injury, which gave Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime a free run to the semis.

It further casts doubt on Italian Sinner’s ability to play in the looming French Open, let alone the Rome Masters on home soil.

Considering that in-form three-time Monte Carlo Masters champion Stefanos Tsitsipas and two-time French Open finalist Casper Ruud suffered premature elimination at the hands of Brazilian Thiago Monteiro and resurgent Auger-Aliassime respectively, this was an unlikely semi-final line-up of Lehecka, Rublev, Auger-Aliassime and Taylor Fritz.

The American No 1 should take a bow, as this is his first semi-final foray in Madrid and on his worst surface. So too Auger-Aliassime, who hasn’t been able to put together three consecutive wins on clay in over a year.

Whoever wins in Madrid may feel it is a pyrrhic victory, in the wake of two top seeds (Sinner and Medvedev) pulling the plug.

Nevertheless, it showcases the danger posed by proverbial dark horses, of which Rublev is obviously not one.

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