By Tumaini Carayol
(May 5, 2013) MADRID – As the Madrid Open sprang rapidly into action, the press room experienced a rush as the three greatest male players of the generation descended one-by-one into the spotlight as the revolving door of matches punctuated the first Sunday’s play.
Arriving first was the home and tournament favorite, Rafael Nadal. A year ago, the Spanish champion met his clay-court nadir as the slippery blue experiment left the No. 1 in a red fury. Against countryman Fernando Verdasco in the last 16, the champion’s game deserted him as, from 5-2 up in the third set, the Spaniard inexplicably found himself unable to guide even the tamest of strokes between the white lines. A landslide of 5 lost games in succession followed, as one of the most shocking capitulations in recent times was completed and Nadal was booted out of his home tournament..
A year, a French Open title, a long layoff, a triumphant return, and – vitally – a surface change later, such demons appeared long gone as the champion fielded questions exclusively in Spanish. During his first practice on the new surface, the French Open champion could be seen positively discussing the change of surface with fellow player Kevin Anderson, and it was reflected in his comments today.
“The courts this year fortunately are really good. I think they are great. The only thing I can say is thank you to the tournament, you know, for the money that they have invested to have the highest quality courts in here.
“I think that obviously the court last year was not up to the level that we needed. It was not prepared to be a competitive court.
“But the courts are impressive this year. Obviously the courts of the year before were better than the courts of last year, but they were not really great.
Roger Federer followed. After a stuttering start to 2013, his lengthy and much-discussed short hiatus from tennis was a notable discussion point and has been subject to much apprehension However, the 17-time Grand Slam champion was quick to play down any ill-effects his break may have caused, instead stressing the positive effects of his break.
“Just been home and practicing hard as I was hoping to. I feel good now, you know. Took me a little time to get over my back issue from Indian Wells. But at the same time, that collided with my vacation anyway, which was okay.
“So I didn’t lose much time there. Now I feel good. Obviously extremely excited being back on tour. Sort of entering all the tournaments from here through to the US Open really, so it’s going to be a long stretch. You want to be ready for it. I’m very excited, which is a good thing
Next came Novak Djokovic, who himself felt a victim to last year’s blue debacle. During his ten-minute conference, the Serb tackled a multitude of subjects, but it was his impromptu grand speech after being asked about Wimbledon’s dramatic increase in prize money that stole the day of interviews.
“Let me remind you there is not only ten players in the world,” he announced, scanning the room confidently. “There are thousands and thousands of players that are trying to participate in Grand Slams.
“Also let me remind you for a player who’s ranked over 100 in a world who plays qualifications and has to travel to Australia, he’s not able to cover his expenses of the travel, hotel, play the tournament, stay there for a few weeks, and to have a coach.
“So he has to choose between something. I think the people are taking that for granted a little bit. I am aware of the fact that the top players are earning big money; there is no question about that. This is not about top players. It’s about all the players, especially the ones who are lower ranked and struggling to have a decent life and also play all the biggest tournaments in the world.
“Grand Slams are the biggest, most prestigious, respectful events we have in tennis with the longest tradition. We definitely are thankful and we salute the decision of the increase of prize money from all four Grand Slams.”
“It’s a positive step, because players are also the ones who are bringing a lot of benefits to the Grand Slam. This kind of correlation and collaboration should be mutual, both ways.
“So we’re moving in the right direction. I believe that now many players are happy with the decisions that were made this year.”
And with that, the World No. 1 left the room. The time for talking was finally over – it was time to play.