Rafael Nadal makes it cinco in Madrid

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As Rafael Nadal tried for número cinco in Madrid Sunday, solving Dominic Thiem proved a far more daunting task than it had been in Barcelona.

Two weeks ago, after a close start, the clay maestro took care of the 23-year-old Austrian 6-4, 6-1. This time, on the bigger stage of a Masters 1000-level event, Nadal had his hands full in what turned out to be a hard-fought, high quality 7-6 (8), 6-4 victory.

This is the fifth title for Nadal in Madrid, a place he has never truly embraced. That’s mostly because of the big variance in conditions with Roland Garros caused by the altitude. And Nadal is a stickler for the details. 

But given the wave he’s riding, any nitpicks the Spaniard may have with the conditions could quickly be cast aside.

No. 4 secure – should he pass on Rome?

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Nadal will now move up to No. 4 in the rankings, a spot that is secure for the French Open. (TennisTV.com)

Nadal will slide past Roger Federer and into the No. 4 spot in the rankings on Monday. That spot looks secure until the French Open; the ranking points from this week’s Masters 1000 tournament in Rome already have been deducted.

Federer isn’t playing Rome. The challengers behind Nadal, including Canadian Milos Raonic, can’t catch up.

The No. 4 seeding is a key slot. At No. 5, a player is guaranteed to meet one of the top four as early as the quarterfinals – assuming both players get there. At No. 4, there is an extra round’s grace.

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Thiem pushed Nadal to the limit during much of a straight-sets win that was far more of a battle than even the tight scoreline indicated. (TennisTV.com)

A perfect 15-0 on the European clay, there therefore isn’t much incentive for Nadal to play Rome. He certainly doesn’t need more matches. The way he is playing, and moving, he might well go deep into the week.

Beyond seeking to add another title to his already illustrious resumé – and, let’s face it, playing tennis is really fun when you’re winning – he may well consider he’s had enough preparation and skip it. But that’s to be determined.

Unlike Federer, Nadal has never made a major priority to schedule rest when appropriate. He only knows one speed. He hasn’t yet made the transition to the “I’m 30 now, I can’t quite do what I used to do” club.

Still, after the match, Nadal declared his intention to play Rome. He said it was a very important event, and he would have a few days to rest before taking the court again.

Masters still a virtual monopoly

If Nadal does pull out, the player who would most benefit would be … Thiem. The No. 8 seed is in the same quarter of the Rome draw with Nadal.

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Dominic Thiem’s clay-court season has proven he will be a major contender at Roland Garros. (TennisTV.com)

For Thiem, who defeated Nadal on clay in Buenos Aires last year after the Spaniard had match points, it was another breakout effort. He stacked up extremely favorably with the finest dirtballer of all time on his home soil. The Austrian stayed with Nadal for so much of the match, needing to go for more risk with his shots and making plenty of them.

When the rallies were nine shots or less, the two were virtually even. Thiem even had a slight lead. Once the rallies hit 10 strokes, Nadal had a 20-8 edge. That, essentially, was the difference in the match.

Thiem is just the latest young gun to try valiantly but fail to win a Masters 1000 title. The “Big Four” of Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won 24 of the last 25. They’ve won 37-of-40 since 2013, and 75-of-85 since 2008.

All eyes on the draw

On Monday, Thiem be No. 7 in the ATP Tour rankings. That means that unless something cataclysmic happens in Rome, the Austrian will be the so-called “player to avoid” in the upper reaches of the men’s singles draw.

Nadal at the 2015 French Open draw: (Please don’t pick Nole. PLEASE don’t pick Nole!) (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Two years ago, Nadal was seeded No. 6 at the French Open and not at the top of his game. He still was the man the top four seeds wanted to avoid. The draw ceremony, which Nadal attended as defending champion, was as tense as could be. Everyone wondered if Novak Djokovic could possibly be the one to draw him as a potential quarter-final opponent in the year that was, to that point, the Serb’s best chance to win his first French Open title.

That’s exactly what happened. And both did get there. Djokovic won that match in straight sets, but Stan Wawrinka snuck through from the bottom half of the draw and won the tournament.

Thiem has company this time around. If Federer plays – his fans still breathlessly await confirmation – he, too, will be one to watch as the No. 5 seed.

Draw ceremonies are typically pretty dry stuff. This year, there will be even more suspense.

Nadal heavy Madrid favorite after romp over Djokovic

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It had been a year since Rafael Nadal met Novak Djokovic on a tennis court.

It had been nearly three years – since the 2014 French Open final – since Nadal had beaten Djokovic.

The Spaniard turned all that around Saturday in Madrid, looking like the swift-moving, confident ball-striking Nadal of his vintage years in dispatching Djokovic 6-2, 6-4.

He will be the heavy favorite in Sunday’s final against No. 8 seed Dominic Thiem of Austria.

As impressive as the effort was, Nadal got a lot of help from the subdued Serb. Djokovic just isn’t himself on the tennis court these days. And while his supreme talent was enough to get him to the semi-finals, it wasn’t nearly enough against Nadal.

It will be the sixth final of the year for Nadal.

“It’s true that the last two times I played against him I felt I was a little bit closer. I think I played well. Probably Novak didn’t play his best match this afternoon, but at the same time I played a great first set. In the second it was much more equal,” he said.

It always seemed possible that once Nadal returned to his beloved clay, the positive steps he had already taken in 2017 would be concretized. The fact that Roger Federer won both the Australian Open and Miami against him, and defeated him early on at Indian Wells in a tough draw for both, has obscured the fact that he really is on the upswing again.

The Spaniard is 33-5 on the season; three of the five losses came against Federer.

Djokovic continues to puzzle

As for Djokovic, he continues to be a conundrum wrapped in an enigma.

One of the bastions of his once-impenetrable game, his incredible depth of shot from virtually any position on the court, isn’t there at the moment. That allows his opponents to take control of points they rarely used to have a shot at. And it forces Djokovic to hit from more uncomfortable positions, and sometimes even forces him to go for more risk than what’s within the comfort zone he has crafted over the last many years.

He may well be dealing with physical woes – an elbow injury, notably, has affected him for nearly a year now. Even at the Olympics in Brazil last summer, his physio was doing a lot of work on the arm and elbow.

But he’s not alone on the pro tours to be dealing with injuries. It’s the compete level, once consistently top shelf, that’s not there. Djokovic hasn’t even reached a final since the season opener in Doha, which he won.

He’ll get it back. He’s far too good not to. It’s just a matter of when.

But it’s not there at the moment, and he’s getting close to beginning defense of his first French Open crown. Only in 2010 and 2012 did the Serb fail to win at least one clay-court title.

Nadal also made an adjustment in his game plan against Djokovic, compared to their last meeting in Rome a year ago.

(From TennisTV):

In the meantime, Nadal is starting to build towards something he hasn’t had in a few years – peak confidence just in time for Paris, where he will be looking to take his 10th bite out of the Trophée des Mousquetaires.

Consider what he looked like a year ago going into Paris.

Best clay-courter vs. best young clay-courter

Standing in his way Sunday is arguably the finest young clay-court player on the circuit.

Thiem defeated Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay 6-4, 6-4 in a late-night match that followed the gripping – but lengthy – women’s singles final Saturday night.

He is the youngest Masters 1000 finalist since Canadian Milos Raonic reached the 2013 Rogers Cup final in Montreal, at age 22. He’s attempting to be the youngest Masters 1000 champion since Andy Murray, in Shanghai back in 2010.

The 6 p.m. start on Sunday will help. But Thiem will have had less downtime than his more accomplished rival in the interim.

Thiem won the Rio Open earlier this year and reached the final in Barcelona two weeks ago. He lost to Nadal, but the hangover after beating world No. 1 Andy Murray in the semifinal the previous day had to be huge.

A year ago on the South American clay-court circuit (Nadal played it last year as well), he defeated Nadal, then Nicolas Almagro in back-to-back third-set tiebreaks to win in Buenos Aires. In the spring, he lost to Nadal in Barcelona, made the final in Munich, lost to Federer in Rome, won Nice and got all the way to the French Open semi-finals before losing to Djokovic.

You’d have to think he’ll play better in this one than he did in Barcelona  two weeks ago. Arguably, though, Nadal is playing even better himself.

Defiant Tiriac adds friend Nastase to Madrid ceremony

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The International Tennis Federation, Wimbledon and the French Open sent a clear message that his disgraced lifelong friend Ilie Nastase is persona non grata in tennis right now.

But Ion Tiriac was having none of it.

That’s the thing about being a multi-gazillionaire. You don’t have to let anyone tell you what to do, even when the right thing to do is a no-brainer.

The tone-deaf Mutua Madrid Open tournament owner decided his friend Nastase would be part of the trophy ceremony when their fellow Romanian, Simona Halep, defended her women’s singles title Saturday night.

At least, we have to assume it came from Tiriac. It’s unlikely anyone else in the organization would make that kind of call.

Optics couldn’t be worse for the WTA

And so there Nastase was, big as life, despite the WTA-run international television feed’s best efforts not to show him.

That the 70-year-old would put himself in a place where he didn’t belong, and wasn’t supposed to be, just speaks to the obliviousness that comes with being revered your entire life merely for playing a sport very well. That, and being 70 years old and not really giving a darn.

Tiriac made this call even though WTA Tour apparently revoked Nastase’s credential privileges while the now-infamous events during the Fed Cup tie in Constanta, Romania against Great Britain were being investigated.  

Did you know the WTA had revoked his credential privileges?

Neither did we.

To make that common knowledge earlier in the game would have been a strong, necessary statement in support of the women that make up its organization, given how execrable Nastase’s treatment was of several its members last month during Fed Cup.

As well, it would have been a strong statement of support for its biggest star, Serena Williams, who received a personal dose of Nastase “love”.

Somehow, though, that credential revocation memo didn’t get much play, if there was a memo at all. The first most heard of it came with this statement, issued after it was all over on Saturday.

Tiriac

Nastase had been around the tournament all week as a guest of Tiriac, his friend of long standing and former partner in crime on the tennis court. Perhaps the WTA wasn’t watching. That’s always possible, given the tour’s matches still aren’t streamed online.

Or perhaps they did, and protested. And Tiriac replied, ‘My tournament, my guest. Whatcha gonna do about it?”

Romanian royalty

For the women’s final, Nastase sat with Tiriac in his loge. With them was Nadia Comaneci, another Romanian sporting icon. That she was there sitting next to him wasn’t a shock. As the premier sportswoman in her country, her denouncement of Nastase’s behaviour in Constanta was, well, tepid.

Tiriac

Sitting courtside for the final wasn’t enough, though. Nastase had to be front and centre during the trophy ceremony.

Clearly that must have been the gist of the extended conversation between Tiriac and Halep before the ceremony.

Perhaps he asked her if she was okay with it – perhaps. But what could she possibly say to the man who first gave her a wild card into this major tournament, who has been hugely supportive during her career, about a situation involving an icon in their country?

Uncomfortable spot for Halep

Maybe she was just fine with having him there. Who knows? But it put Halep in an awkward position – once again. Because her defense of Nastase after he did some pretty indefensible things during Fed Cup – in her hometown, no less – was awkward enough.

The tournament is a joint ATP-WTA event. So Tiriac easily could have his great friend around all week without technically running afoul of the WTA’s directive. Assuming that directive would have cut any ice with him at all.

Whether or not Halep wanted Nastase there is fairly moot.  When your own organization refuses to credential someone – even your friend – the way take a stand against that directive is not to do something like this on such a public stage.

Great tennis overshadowed 

One thing is certain: the presence of her embattled countryman, and her public embrace of him, completely overshadowed Halep’s shining moment.

Having Comaneci up there would have been Romanian representation enough, no? Assuming there needed to be any. The tournament took place in Spain.

Tiriac in the catbird’s seat

You wonder if Nastase would have been up there had Halep lost the final.

Probably not. Imagine if she had played Great Britain’s Johanna Konta in the final instead of France’s Kristina Mladenovic. Actually, that’s unimaginable.

The aftermath took the focus off what was an outstanding, hard-fought, high-quality women’s match at a tournament where crowds for the women’s matches are typically sparse. That included even this Saturday night finale; the Caja Majica was far from full.

Despite the more than $5.4 million in prize money on offer in Madrid, the women are often an afterthought – as is sadly the case at many of the joint ATP-WTA events.

Halep escapes potential sanction

There was one moment that could have proven very tricky. An annoyed Halep kicked her racquet away – and it glanced off one of the “ball men” running along the back of the court doing his job. 

It was, potentially, a default-worthy offense. But Halep had a feckless umpire in Mariana Alves, who merely issued an unsportsmanlike conduct warning. Well, let’s call Alves practical; imagine how Tiriac and Nastase would have reacted had she defaulted their countrywoman. 

One thing you know: it’s a lot less likely Tiriac would have defied the ATP Tour in a similar situation. And that’s a statement in itself. He can easily say to the WTA, “So, you don’t want my $5.4 million in prize money and this great platform to show off your product? Fine, go find it somewhere else – if you can.”

In the end, Tiriac is the one who had all the leverage here. And he used it.

What are they going to do to punish him for this “transgression”? Issue him a big fine? He could probably pull enough change from between the seat cushions in his Caja Majica office to cover it.

All in all, it was not one of the better days for the WTA in recent months. And that’s saying something.

Genie Bouchard’s Madrid run ends

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After three consecutive victories, each one momentous for Genie Bouchard in its own way, it wasn’t surprising she had a letdown in the Madrid Open quarterfinals Thursday night.

That the 23-year-old Canadian came up against a nearly impeccable performance from Russian veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova only added to the challenge.

Bouchard came out on the wrong end of a 6-4, 6-0 defeat which ends a run that could end up changing the direction of her season.

There were a few warning signs during an indifferent second set that wrapped up in a flash, despite a rain delay. But for the moment, considering how different the circumstances were from similar sub-par efforts over the last few months, it was hopefully just a consequence and not a return to the past.

Kuznetsova’s final stats were intimidating: 28 winners, just seven unforced errors. The numbers were about evenly split between the two sets.

Bouchard’s legs had little of the spring they had during her victories over Maria Sharapova Monday and world No. 2 Angelique Kerber Wednesday. Her post-match handshake had nothing of the intense eye contact, either.

And it couldn’t have been because the match against Kerber had taken much out of her physically. But the visible lack of energy didn’t help as she tried to track down what Kuznetsova was dealing up. Often, Bouchard was caught flat-footed; occasionally, she stumbled.

Kuznetsova’s brand stands apart from most of the other women on the WTA Tour. Most hit the ball very flat; Kuznetsova’s ball is heavy, with a lot of spin. And she has quick enough hands to be able to pull the trigger on a straight-out winner when she sees the opening, without appearing to expend much additional effort on the swing.

Coach Thomas Högstedt came out after the early break of serve in the first set. He assured Bouchard that while Kuznetsova had gotten off to a good start, her level was going to drop.

It’s a reliable go-to play for Högstedt during these on-court consults. But in this case, he predicted incorrectly. It never happened.

Bouchard had a small sliver of an opening at love-30, as Kuznetsova served for the first set at 5-4. But even that only came about after a couple of lucky breaks, including a let cord.

Once Kuznetsova saved that, she rolled.

“I played quite a good game,” Kuznetsova said afterwards. “I was a little bit not returning so well, and in the second set I played better.”

Bouchard didn’t earn her first break point until she was already down two breaks herself in the second set. Kuznetsova took care of a quality service return with a forehand winner from way behind the baseline.

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No extended eye contact for Bouchard after this handshake. Short and sweet from both parties.

The Canadian’s pace of shot in the second set was definitely lacking. She clearly had already made up her mind that it wasn’t going to be her day. And there was evidence to support that contention. But unlike the previous matches, she didn’t keep her competitive level up until the very last ball.

She also was far more agitated than her opponent during a fairly lengthy rain delay, when she was already down 0-4 in the second set. That likely spoke to her state of mind. If anything, a break like that can slow a hot player’s momentum, so it should have been welcome.

It had appeared the roof over the Caja Majica was closing. But when the rain came, the players had to wait until it did actually did close before resuming play. It took several minutes.

In a wide-open field, Kuznetsova is quietly making a case for herself as a French Open contender. She began the week ranked No. 9. If she can defeat No. 14 seed Kristina Mladenovic in the semifinals, she would move all the way up to No. 5.

Kuznetsova was 19 when she won the 2004 US Open. She was 23 – Bouchard’s age – when she won at Roland Garros in 2009. It seemed then that there could be plenty more to come.

As consistent as she has been around the top of the game, as relatively injury-free as she has been, the Russian has never won another major. She may yet have another deep run in her, though.

Meanwhile, Bouchard exits with a long sought-after dose of confidence.

With her win over Kerber, she also will leave having finally risen in the rankings. Bouchard could have squeezed back into the top 40 with a win Thursday. Instead, she’ll settle for a rise of six spots, to No. 54, and can hope for more next week.

Unlike much of the season, Bouchard won’t wait weeks – or even a month – to get back on court. Her ranking wouldn’t grant her direct entry into next week’s Premier 5 tournament in Rome, which has eight fewer main-draw spots than Madrid. So she will have to take her chances in the qualifying.

Armed with some Madrid momentum, that task suddenly became a little less daunting.

Bouchard backs up Sharapova win with Kerber upset

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Beating Maria Sharapova Monday night backed up Genie Bouchard’s words.

Backing it up with an upset over world No. 2 Angelique Kerber of Germany Wednesday night backed up her deeds.

The 23-year-old Canadian got a lot of help from Kerber, who retired from the match down 6-3, 5-0 with a hamstring problem. She said she felt it on the second-to-last point. Kerber visibly pulled up on what turned out to be the final point, not even attempting to go after Bouchard’s return.

Before that, Kerber served seven times, and failed to hold serve … seven times. That wasn’t the hamstring. 

The German never even earned a game point; Bouchard was 7-for-9 on break-point conversions as she posted a second consecutive bravura performance. 

Kerber attributed the defeat to a number of factors.

“It was a little bit difficult to get in the match and finding the rhythm. She plays actually not bad. She plays good,” Kerber told the media in Madrid. “(Bouchard) was going for it. She hits the ball really fast.

“Still, I mean, yeah, I couldn’t find the way because it was, yeah, different. The conditions are little bit different than the last days. But that’s not the excuse, so …”

It was clear once Bouchard earned an opening break in the second set that Kerber just wanted to get it over with. She opened that second set with a double-fault and by the time it was 0-2, she was rushing between points as though she still had a shot at making the Madrid early-bird special.

Wind, cold – not Kerber’s night

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Kerber calls for the trainer at 3-6, 0-5. It was a brief episode before she pulled the plus. (Screenshot: TVA Sports)

Whatever she was feeling physically, she knew she hadn’t taken the court with enough to try to come all the way back. So she pulled the ripcord.

There was a certain irony in Kerber retiring without giving Bouchard the benefit of a legitimate victory.

For as many things as Bouchard is criticized for, she rarely has pulled out mid-match during her career. She’s had her share of nagging injuries, too. But she’ll usually stick it out.

This is the first time the Canadian has posted three consecutive victories since January in Sydney, Australia. There, she defeated Shuai Zhang, Dominika Cibulkova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova – all fine players, all in straight sets. She lost in the semis to eventual champion Johanna Konta.

These victories in Madrid somehow feel a lot more significant, don’t they?

The win over Alizé Cornet in the first round broke the string of losses that had weighed down Bouchard’s shoulders like a pair of 50-pound barbells. Her dramatic victory over Sharapova was a watershed moment both physically and emotionally.

Winning record vs. Kerber

Bouchard certainly had reason to have some confidence going in.

She defeated Kerber both at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2014, when Bouchard was playing her best tennis. But the Canadian also prevailed in Rome a year ago, 7-5 in the third set, when nothing was going particularly right for her and everything was going swimmingly for Kerber.

Bouchard now will face No. 8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia in a late-night quarter-final Thursday (not before 9:30 p.m. Madrid time, 3:30 p.m. EDT, after Rafael Nadal vs. Nick Kyrgios at 8 p.m.).

They have not played each other for nearly three years. Kuznetsova won both previous encounters; they neatly bookended the Canadian’s big run through the French Open and Wimbledon in 2014.

Where have you been?

The more popular musings in the wake of Bouchard’s victory questioned where the 2014-vintage tennis has been the last two years.

The unspoken implication there – the wagging of the virtual finger – is that Bouchard wasn’t trying hard enough, not working hard enough. All neatly buttressing the prevailing narrative that she’s more about social media and photo shoots than tennis.

Most should know better. The level Bouchard demonstrated over the last two night in Madrid has everything to do with getting a measure of confidence back. It’s not as though she hasn’t been trying to win and play top tennis. More than many other players, the 23-year-old’s game demands that confidence level because of its high-risk, fairly one-dimensional nature.

Bouchard spoke to that in her press conference.

“I think mentally not being in the right place, allowing outside voices kind of in, allowing the pressure to get to me. You know, quite a few things here and there that just affected me at different times over the past couple of years,” she said.

The evidence is there that some gym work has been paying off. There seemed to be little hangover from the tough physical battle against Sharapova Monday night. Bouchard’s feet were almost dancing. She looked so eager; she was seeing and seizing opportunities to step in and make a play earlier than she has over the last few months, when nerves and an abject lack of confidence often turned those size 9 1/2 Nikes into feet of clay.

Genie
Bouchard looked for every opportunity to move forward and take control Wednesday against an opponent who clearly didn’t the heart for the fight on this night.

Bouchard’s second serve has improved kick to it and is proving highly effective on the clay. And having coach Thomas Högstedt back after he was absent for several tournaments seemed to have helped coalesce her game plans during the last two matches.

She will move up to No. 54 with the victory. It’s first time her ranking has headed in the right direction in quite some time. If she can defeat Kuznetsova, she could rise as high as No. 40.

“It’s been a long, hard road for sure. Like I said, this is three matches. I want to do 50 more this year,” Bouchard said. “It’s a long road ahead of me, as well.”

Bouchard wins for first time since January

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Eugenie Bouchard did her part Saturday at the Madrid Open.

Your turn, Maria Sharapova.

The 23-year-old Canadian finally ended her streak of futility; the 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 first-round victory over Alizé Cornet of France was her first match win at the WTA Tour level since the Australian Open in January.

It was hard to gauge which side of the court was more tense. And the enterprise wasn’t especially stylish. But Bouchard’s first victory in her last seven tournaments was never going to come easily.

The road since Australia has been strewn with potholes and puddles. Bouchard even self-demoted to the ITF Pro Circuit, the minor leagues of pro tennis, in search of some confidence and match wins.

That didn’t go particularly well. And the longer the dry spell was extended, the more challenging it was going to be for Bouchard to get herself out of it.

This was the first three-set match the Canadian has won in nearly 10 months. Bouchard defeated Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in a third-set tiebreaker at her hometown tournament, the Rogers Cup in Montreal, last July.

In Cornet, she faced an opponent whose emotions often get the better of her.

An Alizé Cornet match can be must-see TV, or it can be like rubbernecking at a two-car pileup. Sometimes it’s both in the same match.

The 27-year-old Frenchwoman gave Bouchard just enough help early on. And the Canadian was able to run away with the third set with some occasionally excellent shotmaking and a fair bit of calm under pressure. Add to that frustrated opponent who couldn’t hang in there and wait for things to turn around – as she had done so well in the previous set – and it’s a much-needed win.

Half the potential popcorn match set

JanuaryWhen the Madrid Open draw came out on Friday, the potential second-round clash between Bouchard and Sharapova lit up as though in neon.

It took the draw gods no time at all, in the wake of Bouchard’s very publicized comments about Sharapova and her return from a doping suspension, to cooperate to make an on-court clash happen.

Bouchard held firm when asked about it by the media in Madrid after the match. “It’s my personal opinion. I’ve always played true my whole career,” she said. “Yeah, just my opinion.”

Sharapova still must defeat No. 17 seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia Sunday to make the date, though.

The match began as many of Bouchard’s defeats have, with a good start. She was up 4-2 early and managed to hold on long enough to take the first set.

The second set was that two-car pileup. Bouchard would break serve, then get broken. Rinse, repeat three times.

A couple of bad-luck net cords didn’t help the Canadian as Cornet closed out the set.

Coach Thomas to the rescue

Enter coach Thomas Högstedt, whose counsel was missing during Bouchard’s last two tournaments in Monterrey, Mexico and Istanbul, Turkey.

He pulled out all of his best on-court coaching moves.

The Swede is one of the rare coaches in the women’s game who goes out of his way to include the opponent in the conversation. His advice to former pupil Sharapova during one match years ago went like this: “Don’t worry. She’s gonna choke.”

It’s still a classic.

As Bouchard complained of a sore stomach, Högstedt reiterated the obvious.

“She’s not confident. Your opponent is not confident. Because you show the (poor) attitude, she hangs in there. At the end of this set you looked like you don’t care,” he said. “You win this match. Whatever the score is now, win this match – one ball at a time. Go in there and decide you’re going to and go in and change it – like you did in Australia.”

The Canadian had two break points in the first game of the third set, but couldn’t convert. But in the third game, she broke. Even better, Bouchard broke with a one-two volley combination: a forehand swing volley and then a short-angle crosscourt backhand volley for the winner. 

At 3-1, she broke Cornet at love for some insurance.

After just over two hours, Bouchard looked in command of a tennis match for the first time in months. There were a few “C’MON”s and fist pumps. There were points won at the net. She was patient, often enough, from the back court. At times, the shot selection was spot on.

When it was over, she looked over to her support group and even cracked a smile.

Just one small step

At No. 60 in the world, Bouchard’s ranking still hasn’t felt the full weight of her struggles in 2017.

She hasn’t been playing anything like a top-100 player, but the numbers still don’t really reflect it. Her ranking in the WTA’s Porsche Race to Singapore standings is just one spot below her actual ranking. 

Bouchard has some clusters of points coming up that need defending, including a third-round effort in Rome last year. Without those Rome points, she would drop about a dozen spots. So the 55 points she earned for winning this first-round, Premier Mandatory tournament match will help.

Now, she waits.

Will it be Lucic-Baroni, the 35-year-old comeback story?

Or will it be Sharapova, whom she has not beaten in four tries although the last came more than 2 1/2 years ago.

Bouchard said after that while she felt both had similar aggressive styles, Sharapova is the one she wants to play.

It was a little more than a week ago that Bouchard spoke up loudly against the player she said she once admired. The Canadian feels those caught doping should be banned for life.

There were no shades of gray to her statements, even though there are so many shades of gray in the anti-doping game. Even the official adjudicating bodies more or less agreed Sharapova’s transgression was more sloppiness than any intent to enhance performance.

Not that Sharapova needs any motivation at this point; she’s had 15 months on the sidelines and is raring to go. But this one might have a little extra spice to it.

We’ll see if it happens.

Bouchard vs. Sharapova a potential 2nd-rounder in Madrid

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The draw gods have spoken. And Madrid could be buzzing early next week.

The Mutua Madrid Open women’s draw was made Friday. And when it all shook out, a juicy second-round matchup may await. If Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard win their first-round matches, they will meet in the second round.

Given the events of recent weeks, that’s a matchup tennis fans with a bit of a perverse streak have been looking forward to.

Sharapova returned to the WTA Tour in Stuttgart, Germany last week after serving a 15-month suspension for a positive meldonium test. Many of her competitors did not receive her warmly. Some thought she didn’t deserve the benefit of wild cards from tournament organizers and should work her way back up from the bottom.

War of words might be settled on court

Bouchard, who was playing a concurrent tournament in Istanbul because her ranking had fallen too low to make the very demanding cut in Stuttgart, went much further.

The Canadian was the last one originally into the main draw, after the withdrawal of Venus Williams. She plays Alizé Cornet of France in the first round.

Sharapova, in the draw with one of those contentious wild cards, will play No. 17 seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia

The tournament shuffled things a bit with the late withdrawal of Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland. She would have been the No. 7 seed. Sharapova originally was to play No. 13 seed and fellow Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round

No. 9 seed Madison Keys moved into Radwanska’s spot. Pavlyuchenkova moved into Keys’s spot. Lucic-Baroni, who was to play Katerina Siniakova in the first round, was designated the No. 17 seed and moved into Pavlyuchenkova’s spot in the draw.

Radwanska also has been vocal in her disagreement with Sharapova’s wild-card privileges. She was to have met the Russian in the second round in Stuttgart. But she was upset in the first round by Ekaterina Makarova.