So I’ve made it to the Caja Magica for the first time in seven years and the venue is as bizarre as I remember it to be.
The venue, which literally translates to “Magic Box”, is more mysterious than magical, with its confusing design and excessive use of steel, but the tournament itself is a great one to cover, with all the top players of the WTA and ATP united just three weeks before Roland Garros.
I’ve had my first sighting of Novak Djokovic here on Friday after the bombshell he dropped on everyone. The Serb has parted ways with his long-time coaching staff of Marian Vajda (head coach), Gebhard Gritsch (fitness trainer) and Miljan Amanovic (physio).
He isn’t flying completely solo here however, the 12-time Grand Slam champion has his brother, Marko with him.
Aga says she hasn't missed a slam in 10 years. She's out of Madrid & Rome and is hoping she'll be okay for the French Open pic.twitter.com/c2xfvi9Kfv— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) May 5, 2017
Madrid — World No3 Karolina Pliskova giggles when she is asked to describe her relationship with clay.
The 186m Czech, who is the second seed in Madrid this week and starts her campaign against Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko on Saturday, has yet to master the art of moving smoothly on the surface and her power game does not yield her the same success on the red dirt compared to hard courts.
Even though one of her eight WTA titles has come on clay – at her home tournament in Prague in 2015 – Pliskova admits she struggles with the surface and hopes to turnaround her poor record in Madrid, where she has won just two out of the five matches she ever contested at the Caja Magica.
“It’s complicated, yes,” Pliskova says with a laugh, describing her relationship with clay.
“So far it’s tough to say because – maybe it can change with some results – but so far I don’t like it.
“But hopefully it can change because there are two, quite big tournaments, let’s say three, one is in my hometown – so far not really good, but we’re working on some things with David (Kotyza, her coach) to change this.”
Pliskova, a runner-up at the US Open in 2016, has never made it past the second round in the Spanish capital, and is not looking past her opener against Tsurenko.
She is drawn to potentially face fifth-seeded home favourite Garbine Muguruza in the quarter-finals and is in the same half as sixth-seeded Johanna Konta.
Pliskova acknowledges her shortcomings on clay but still has faith she can learn to compete well on it.
“Obviously I’ve been trying to improve the movement a little bit, which I think it’s not really great anywhere, but on clay it’s even worse than on hard courts,” said the 25-year-old.
“With matches I think it can improve so I need two or three matches in a row to get better on clay.
“So far I have played three matches and I don’t think any of them were that great. Hopefully I can change it this tournament.
“We all know clay is tough for me, not the best surface, but I believe that one day I can even play good tennis here.”
In the absence of Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova, who together won four of the last six titles in Madrid, the draw feels fairly open this week. Asked who she considers the strongest contenders on the surface, Pliskova said: “I think definitely one of my favourites for clay would be Svetlana Kuznetsova (2015 Madrid runner-up).
“She’s been playing very well on hard courts as well and I think she played the final here two years ago in Madrid, so definitely she’s going to be tough.
“Obviously Simona (Halep), she’s defending champion here and then I think Garbine, even though she didn’t have a really good year so far I think she can be also dangerous on clay because obviously she won the French Open last year she’s going to be confident on clay.”
Someone who hasn’t made Pliskova’s short list is Konta, who like the Czech, has not enjoyed much success on clay, but does not share her dislike for the surface.
“I do enjoy the clay, I really do. It’s obviously a surface I haven’t played as many matches on in the last number of years but I’m really hoping I can play as many matches this year as possible on the clay,” Konta told reporters in Madrid.
“Yeah, really looking to improve on the surface because I feel it also transfers onto the other surfaces as well, it doesn’t just stay here.”
Konta has a tricky opener at the Caja Magica on Saturday against Germany’s Laura Siegemund, who claimed the title in Stuttgart last week.
While some may find a first round like that daunting, Konta is actually looking forward to it.
“She’s come off a great result in Stuttgart, she beat a lot of great players, so I know she’s playing well on this surface, so I’m really looking forward to the challenge. I think it’s a great opportunity for me to play someone who’s playing well on the surface and to really improve my game as well,” said the Brit, who has only ever contested 11 tour-level matches on clay, and won just three of them.
Novak Djokovic has announced he has parted ways with his entire training team, including long-time coach Marian Vajda, as he attempts to arrest an alarming slide in form in the past year.
The former world number one believes that this “shock therapy” will help him return to the top of the game after a wretched run of results.
“I am a hunter and my biggest goal is to find the winning spark on the court again,” Djokovic, 29, said in a lengthy statement on his website.
The Serb, who was knocked off top spot last November by Andy Murray, joined his rival at the exit of the Monte Carlo Masters after losing to Belgian David Goffin 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 last month.
In January, Djokovic’s Australian Open title defence ended in a shock second-round exit.
The statement said Djokovic felt the need for a change and had “mutually agreed” with Vajda, fitness coach Gebhard Phil Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic to end their partnership.
The move follows a split late last year with coach Boris Becker after three years working together.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion said he was thinking of appointing a new head coach but did not want to rush the decision.
“I want to find a way to come back to the top stronger and more resilient,” he said.
“I have so much faith in this process and that’s why I will take time to find the right person who I can connect with professionally.”
For now he said he would be on tour alone with the support of his family and management, with the French Open just over two weeks away.
Vajda, who has been a major influence, said he felt like he had spent a “whole lifetime” with Djokovic.
“Novak can do so much more and I am sure he will,” the departing head coach said.
“I am convinced that he will remain at the top of tennis for many years and that he will bring a lot of joy to all the tennis fans around the world with his victories.”
Gritsch described Djokovic as “a champion and a warrior and the sky is the limit for him”.
Djokovic had expressed frustration about his game after his Monte Carlo disappointment, saying he was “doing everything that I can to play well”.
He said then that he would not add to his schedule and would try to stick with the Madrid and Rome Masters events this month to complete his Grand Slam preparations for Paris.