The slippery switch to blue clay left most players seeing red, but two of the game’s greats were able to put the surface distraction aside to claim Mutua Madrid Open titles.
Roger Federer’s record-equalling 20th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown drew him back square with Rafael Nadal and crucially saw him leapfrog his Spanish rival into the world No.2 spot.
For Serena Williams, victory over reigning world No.1 Victoria Azarenka in the women’s singles final took her clay court record for the season to 13-0 and cemented her as an early favourite to claim a second Roland Garros crown.
In a tournament likely to be remembered more for heavy criticism of the playing surface, both were able to find their footing in contrasting finals – Federer recovering from a set down to edge Czech sixth seed Tomas Berdych 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 and Williams clocking 26 winners to wipe out Azarenka 6-1, 6-3.
Barring a third-set tiebreak win over towering Milos Raonic in his first match, Federer was cruising on the blue clay as he entered the final, where he carried a 10-4 head-to-head record against Berdych.
"I was very realistic coming into this event. Confidence is coming back. I was away and it didn’t take much for me to get my confidence back, especially now that I’ve been playing so well for the past nine months," Federer said, having captured his fourth title of the season.
With Nadal and defending champion Novak Djokovic suffering surprise premature exits to fellow countrymen – Nadal to Madrid native Fernando Verdasco in the third round and Djokovic to Janko Tipsarevic in the quarter-finals – Federer seized the opportunity in his first tournament back since early April.
“It’s been a great spell and I couldn’t be more happy right now coming off a break winning right away,” he said.
While disappointed at missing the chance to secure only his second Masters 1000 crown, after Paris seven years ago, Berdych was confident he would still draw positives from his week, which included wins over Gael Monfils, Verdasco and the in-form Juan Martin del Potro.
“You sometimes need to make those small adjustments to win a match like this, but it wasn't my case today,” Berdych said.
“I lost the final but in a couple of hours I am going to see it in a more positive way. I had a great week, I beat a lot of great guys and made it to the finals.”
Williams would only drop one set all week – to fellow former No.1 Caroline Wozniacki – on her way to the women’s title.
Having crushed No.2 Maria Sharapova in the quarter-finals and then top-ranked Azarenka in the final, it became the seventh time in Williams’s career she had downed the top two-ranked players at the same tournament, more than any other player.
"We all play to be the best. We're all out here to do the best we can do, and if that's No.1, that's my ultimate goal. A lot of people feel that way," Williams said.
"My whole thing is to play consistently. That's what I've done the last couple weeks; and doing what I do best, which at the end of the day is playing tennis.
“I actually love the clay but my results haven’t been stellar. I have won the French Open and lots of clay court tournaments, though. It’s really a myth about me not liking clay.”
Azarenka was realistic about the lop-sided title match and determined to learn from it as the clay court swing heads to Rome ahead of the French Open.
“She was so much better than me today. I have to give her credit, she's been showing great tennis the whole week," Azarenka said.
“From here I can take the positive things from what I've been doing all week, and then see the clear picture of what I need to improve."
Czech world No.105 Lucie Hradecka was the biggest surprise packet of the tournament, first battling her way through qualifying before being stopped by eventual champion, Williams, in the semi-finals.
Hradecka beat two of the reigning Grand Slam singles champions, Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the third round and US Open champion Sam Stosur in the quarter-finals in reaching her maiden Premier-level semi-final.
For all the reports and results from Madrid, visit the official Mutua Madrid Open site
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