Racket Response: Safarova back on track, Federer suffers setback – ESPN

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The Madrid Open is a little more than a day old, and we’re already seeing shocking results.

Gone are Angelique Kerber, the reigning Australian Open champ, and Agnieszka Radwanska, who lost a three-set battle against Dominika Cibulkova on Sunday.

But at least they were able to get a match in, which is more than Roger Federer can say. The Swiss star pulled out of Madrid, the penultimate clay Masters Series event of the year, with a back injury.

Our writers weigh in on some of the unforeseen results in Madrid, plus some of the highlights from the week that was in another edition of Racket Response.

Peter BodoPeter Bodo (@ptbodo): As last week began in Prague, Lucie Safarova had yet to win a singles match in 2016, even though she had been ranked as high as No. 5 last fall. By week’s end, she had logged five wins in a row and beamed as she hoisted the championship trophy high above her shoulders in the capital city of her native Czech Republic.

A long layoff because of injury or illness can really mess with a tennis player’s head, especially if that unexpected hiatus kicks in while said player is at or near the peak of her career. That was the situation Safarova found herself in at the start of this year.

Safarova, 29, was the French Open runner-up to Serena Williams last season. The Czech also partnered with Bethanie Mattek-Sands to win the first two Grand Slam doubles titles of 2015. Finally, it seemed, that explosive but unpredictable service return was paying consistent dividends. Finally, Safarova’s left-handed juju was animating her forehand, making it pop and sing.

She went on to have a solid summer, but she developed a bacterial infection that foiled her fall season and ultimately left her hospitalized. She still managed to qualify for the WTA Finals for the first time in her career and rallied to play, winning a match in the round-robin stage.

But her illness lingered, and Safarova had to pass on the Australian Open. She didn’t return until late February and lost her opening match in five straight tournaments leading to Prague. With her ranking falling to No. 16, Safarova needed a win badly. She got five, with the last two against defending Prague champion Karolina Pliskova and 2011 US Open champ Samantha Stosur.

Carl BialikCarl Bialik (@CarlBialik): In Istanbul, Diego Schwartzman is barely beatable. Everywhere else, he’s barely a tour-level player.

Schwartzman improved his record in Istanbul to 8-1 and won his first career title in his first career final by beating Grigor Dimitrov 6-7 (5),7-6 (4),6-0 on Sunday. Dimitrov stole the headlines by losing his temper, his rackets and most of the points in the third set. But Schwartzman — one of the shortest players on tour at 5-foot-7 — deserves attention for his second consecutive remarkable run in the tournament’s second year. In 2015, he reached his first career semifinal on tour and took a set off Federer. This year, the 23-year-old Argentine beat three of the event’s top four seeds to win the title.

Here’s how remarkable this is: Schwartzman has just one more tour-level win on clay outside Istanbul than in it. He won as many tour-level matches last week as he has won in his career on hard courts. He has played 11 round-of-16 matches in his career, winning both in Istanbul and losing the other nine. He has a winning streak longer than one match just once outside Istanbul; it lasted two matches. And he has as many tour-level wins against the top 50 in Istanbul (four) as out of it.

Can Schwartzman find ATP success again before next spring’s Istanbul event? We’ll have to wait at least a week to find out. He’s back to the challenger grind this week in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Tristan BarclayTristan Barclay (@tjbbarclay): As he gears up for his Madrid Open title defense, Andy Murray has revealed that he would be prepared to release all his drug-testing records if it would help clear tennis of doping rumors and suspicion.

Murray has been one of the most vocal critics of doping in the sport, even admitting he has held suspicions of some opponents he has faced in the past. That suggestion drew criticism from such luminaries as Boris Becker, but the world No. 2 vowed to remain outspoken on the subject.

Rafael Nadal has already called on anti-doping authorities to publish his records, and Murray, who beat the Spaniard in last year’s Madrid final, backed the calls of his clay-court rival to promote openness in the sport.

“The more transparency, the better for the sport,” Murray said to The Scotsman. “I think because of what’s happened over the last 10 or 15 years, there’s kind of a general mistrust around sports. And when you have that — publishing your data and your testing results — that obviously leaves much less doubt, which I think is positive.”

Matt WilanskyMatt Wilansky (@mattwilansky): Historically one of the most reliable players on tour, Roger Federer has now suffered his third health-related setback of 2016.

On Monday, he pulled out of the Madrid Open, citing a back injury he suffered at practice two days earlier. In January, he injured his knee, which required arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus. In Miami, he withdrew at the last minute because of a stomach virus.

This means Federer will have one last shot, the Italian Open, to get some match play in before the start of the French Open, which begins May 22.

This Swiss is a four-time runner-up in Rome but has never won the title. Last season, he reached the final before falling to Novak Djokovic.

Federer has played only 13 matches on the season, 11 fewer than he had at this point a year ago — a year that saw him reach two Grand Slam finals and the championship match at the ATP World Tour Finals.

Matter of fact, his total matches so far are the fewest he has played since 1998 — his first season on tour. Federer was only 16 at the time. Now he’s 34, and we can only wonder how his inactivity will affect him on the daunting clay courts of Paris.

Who’s trending high and low


Nicolas Almagro: The Spaniard beat Pablo Carreno Busta in three sets to win the Estoril Open, his first title in four years. Almagro relied on his big serve, striking 12 aces in the win.


Angelique Kerber: Fresh off her title run at Stuttgart, Kerber lost her opening match in Madrid, falling to Barbora Strycova in straight sets.

Racket Response: Safarova back on track, Federer suffers setback – ESPN

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