If someone told you about an event where Rafael Nadal crashed out to a non-contender, Milos Raonic made a statement, and the final pitted Tomas Berdych against Roger Federer, you’d be forgiven for assuming the event was played on a very fast court. All of those things happened last week in Madrid on a surface that has at least some things in common with clay.
Given the tournament results, it’s no surprise to discover that statistically, the Madrid courts didn’t play like the old-fashioned red stuff. The stats from this year’s event at Caja Majica are a significant departure from those in past years, and suggest that the blue clay resembles a hard court more than it does European dirt.
Let’s start with aces. Aces are the stat most affected by surface, given the small difference in serve speed and bounce trajectory that can turn a returnable offering into an unreachable one. Of the 29 ATP tournaments played so far this year, Madrid ranks 10th in ace percentage after making adjustments for the players in the field and how many matches each one played. In fact, taking these adjustments into account, the ace rate in Madrid was almost indistinguishable from that of the indoor San Jose tourney!
(For a bit more background on methodology and more tourney-by-tourney comparison, see this article from last September.)
This is a huge departure for Madrid. The tournament has always had a reputation for playing a bit fast, given the altitude compared to Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, and Paris, but that has long been a minor difference, at least when it comes to ace counts. In 2011, Madrid’s ace rate ranked 22nd of the season’s first 29 events, just ahead of Acupulco and behind Munich, Casablanca, and Santiago. 2010 was almost exactly the same, with Madrid coming in 23rd of these 29 events.
Another way of estimating court speed is by looking at the percentage of points won by the server. Even on points where the returner gets the ball back in play, a fast court should generate weaker returns and more third-shot winners. In this department, Madrid once again ranks among this year’s faster events. As in ace rate, it is #10 of 29 on the list, just behind San Jose and ahead of the hard court events in Chennai, Auckland, and Brisbane.
I can’t say whether it’s right or wrong to have a Masters-level event on an unusual surface, but I can say, based on these numbers, that the blue clay hardly plays like clay at all.