Despite Defeats, Britons Excel At The Madrid Open

Andy Murray at the Madrid Open.
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For British tennis players and fans alike, the start of the European clay court season is always a time of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is arguably the most glamorous and spectacular part of the entire tennis season, as it is effectively a tour of Europe’s cultural and sporting capitals, including Monte Carlo, Rome and Paris. On the other hand, it is all played out on what is most British tennis players’ least favourite surface, which is hardly surprising given that there are virtually no clay courts in Britain, as they are incredibly hard to maintain in such a wet climate. Nevertheless, despite the fact that they have now all exited the Madrid Open, all the British players who played in the Spanish capital this week can be justifiably proud of their efforts.

Emma Raducanu

The reigning US Open Champion was the only British woman in the Madrid main draw and she continued her pleasingly upward trajectory on clay. She had never played a professional match on the red stuff until Britain’s Billie Jean King Cup clash with the Czech Republic in Prague last month, where she beat Tereza Martincova in her first singles match before being beaten comprehensively by  Marketa Vondrousova in her second singles match, as Britain eventually lost the tie 3-2 and thus failed to qualify for the tournament’s finals later this year.

Nevertheless, in her next tournament in Stuttgart, an indoor clay event, Raducanu produced her most sustained run of form since winning in New York last autumn to reach the quarterfinal, where she gave the new world #1 Iga Swiatek a run for her money before eventually losing in straight sets, 6-4 6-4.

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In Madrid, she began the tournament by beating Martincova again, edging the first set 7-6 before bagelling her older and more experienced (especially on clay) opponent in the second set. She then produced arguably her single best performance since her remarkable run in New York by defeating Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk, who had easily defeated her 6-2, 6-1 soon after her New York triumph at the Transylvania Open in October, reversing the score precisely to go through in straight sets.

However, in the round of 16, Raducanu could not continue her impressive recent form on clay as she lost to another Ukrainian, Anhelina Kalinina, after three hard-fought sets, 2-6, 6-2, 4-6. She professed herself pleased with the performance, despite experiencing yet more physical problems that ultimately contributed to her defeat. That was a reminder that, in addition to finally settling on a new and long-term coach, she must try to get to the bottom of the fitness issues, particularly with her breathing, that have been so commonplace ever since her breakthrough at Wimbledon last year.

Jack Draper

Of all the British men in Madrid, it was arguably the youngest, 20-year-old Jack Draper, who produced the standout performance, as he pushed Andrey Rublev, the sixth seed, all the way in their first round encounter, before the Russian eventually won 2-6, 6-4, 7-5. In the first set in particular, Rublev, like several other highly experienced and highly ranked players this year, appeared to be overwhelmed by the power and accuracy of Draper’s serve, which remains his most formidable weapon, even on clay.

And even if Draper could not quite sustain the brilliance of the first set in the next two sets, he still showed enough to remind everyone that he, too, should be considered as part of the “youthquake” that is currently shaking up men’s tennis, after more than a decade and a half of dominance by the Big Three of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. 

Dan Evans

Evans has serious “previous” on clay, having reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo last year and beaten world #1 Novak Djokovic en route. And even if he is yet to come close to matching that peak this season, he is still a contender on clay, with his back-hand slice a particularly potent weapon on the surface as it almost literally bites into the court before dying on an opponent.

While it was no Monte Carlo 2021, Madrid 2022 has still been Evans’s best clay-court tournament of the year so far. In the first round, he won comfortably against Argentina’s experienced Federico Delbonis, a veteran of clay courts both in South America and Europe, coming through in straight sets, 6-3 6-4. Then, in the second round, he produced probably his best performance on any surface since he beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo when he beat Roberto Bautista Agut in three extraordinarily tough sets, 6-3 5-7 7-6 (7-2).

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Bautista Agut is one of the better clay-court players in the world, especially in his native Spain when he is cheered on by home crowds, but Evans played superbly throughout, particularly in the deciding third-set tie-break, to gain one of the very best wins of his career. Unfortunately, against Andrey Rublev in the third round Evans could not quite maintain the winning form that he had showed against Bautista Agut, eventually losing 7-6 (9-7) 7-5, as the Russian defeated his second Briton in Madrid in just a few days.

Nevertheless, the tightness of the match is perfectly reflected in the scoreline, with Evans matching Rublev almost all the way throughout the two sets, until the extra power of the Russian finally paid dividends for him, first in an extremely close tie-break, in which Evans had set points, and then in an almost equally close second set. Nevertheless, for Evans and his fans it was a reminder that on clay he can compete with and even defeat the very best, as he had proved conclusively in Monte Carlo last year.

Cameron Norrie

Cameron Norrie has quietly but definitively established himself as Britain’s #1 male tennis player, a title that Andy Murray held for so long, especially after his extraordinary 2021, when he reached (and lost) a succession of finals before finally triumphing at Indian Wells for a maiden Masters 1000 victory and the first ever by a British man who isn’t Murray, Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski. And that spectacular 2021 also included some stunning runs on clay, as the many finals he reached included two on the red dirt of Estoril and Lyon.

This season has largely been one of consolidation, rather than breakthrough, for Norrie, and that was evident again in Madrid this week. In the first round, he won in straight sets against South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo, who had recently virtually “bagelled” Carlos Alcaraz in Barcelona when he won six games in a row in the second set of their match there before eventually losing in three sets. Then Norrie overcame a mighty hurdle in the second round when he beat the gigantic-serving John Isner in three tight sets, 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 6-4.

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Unfortunately, Norrie could only make it a hat-trick of losses in his three matches against Carlos Alcaraz when they came up against each other in the third round. As if playing the superb young Spaniard in the Spanish capital wasn’t enough of a task, it was also Alcaraz’s 19th birthday, but far from distracting him (even when the crowd sang him ‘Happy Birthday’), it seemed to spur Alcaraz on. Although he followed a recent trend of losing his way in the second set, as against Kwon in Barcelona, Alcaraz rebounded spectacularly to win in three sets, 6-4 6-7 (7-4) 6-3.

It was a painful reminder for Norrie that, for all his recent successes, he still remains short of the very best in the sport, especially at the Majors, and he can only hope to avoid Alcaraz entirely for the rest of the clay court season, especially at Roland Garros.

Andy Murray

Finally, Madrid saw the return to clay of the grand old man of British tennis, Murray. Before the series of injuries that effectively wrecked his career post-2016 and from which he is still desperately trying to recover, Murray had proved himself to be arguably Britain’s best ever male player on clay, and certainly in the Open Era. He even reached the French Open final in 2016 (defeating reigning champion Stan Wawrinka on the way) before eventually losing to Novak Djokovic, as the Great Serb completed the Career Grand Slam of winning every Major at least once.

Five years on, and after Murray had beaten both Dominic Thiem (who is himself returning from a succession of serious injuries) and then Denis Shapovalov in Madrid, Murray was due to play Djokovic in the third round, in what would have been the first match between them for over five years, a statistic that just shows how debilitating the last half-decade has been for Murray. However, illness eventually accounted for Murray, preventing him from even starting the match, and so he and the world can only wait to see how, as he put it, the world #1 will cope with playing a man who has a metal hip.

Any Clay Conclusions For The Britons?

For all that clay literally remains an alien surface for most British players, the record of both female and male British players on clay is not nearly as bad as it should be for a country without a single major clay court. In addition to Murray reaching the French Open final in 2016, Johanna Konta reached the semifinal at Roland Garros in 2019 and of course Sue Barker won the entire tournament in 1976.

Nevertheless, it must remain questionable as to whether the current crop of British players can emulate those extraordinary feats on clay. Murray is obviously approaching the end of his career, even though he is doing his best to delay the end for as long as possible; Evans and Norrie may be capable of making the second week at Roland Garros, but it would take something remarkable for them to go any further than that; and Draper, for all his heroics on clay against Rublev this week in Madrid, will surely find that grass and hardcourt are his best surfaces, especially because they will speed up and not slow down his fearsome serve.

So, it may just come down to Raducanu to fly the British flag on continental clay in the future. After nearly six months of disappointing defeats and virtual no-shows since her historic triumph in NYC, in recent weeks she has shown at last that she can get back to something approaching that Major-winning form. The 2022 French Open may come too soon for her to prove that she can win, or at least compete for, another Major on clay, but in the future she may just be able to.

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