Bublik Wakes Up Just In Time To Beat Shelton In Madrid

Alexander Bublik (photo: Angel Martinez/MMO)

MADRID/WASHINGTON, April 29, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

As the upper half of the men’s draw in the Mutua Madrid Open played their third-round matches in this ATP Masters 1000 event at Caja Magica Monday, including No. 1 seed Jannik Sinner and five-time champion Rafael Nadal, No. 14 seed Ben Shelton aimed to extend his undefeated run on clay this season against No. 17 Alexander Bublik.

The American No. 2 Shelton had already won a title on clay in Houston earlier this month and posted a straight-set win against Tomas Machac on Saturday for a perfect 5-0 win-loss record. Shelton, who previously lost to Bublik on clay at the Rome masters last year, was in search of his first Top 20 win on clay.

As it happened, Bublik, who doesn’t like waking up to play early starts, became more aggressive after he woke up. He rallied to beat Shelton, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, in two hours and nine minutes on Arantxa Sanchez Stadium by striking 35 winners to 27 unforced errors. Bublik, a Russian-born Kazakh, withstood 40 winners – including nine aces – from Shelton en route to his 16th win of the season despite being outpointed 98-97. It was Bublik’s first Top 20 win on clay since beating then-World No. 14 Denis Shapovalov en route to reaching the 2021 quarterfinals in Madrid.

“I’m happy with the win,” said Bublik, who has one title this season (at Montpellier) and began the Madrid fortnight with a career-high ranking of No. 18 and a win over Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena, which ended a three-match losing streak.

Asked during his on-court interview when the momentum turned in his favor against Shelton, Bublik said, “I think we both played well in the tie-break. … When you go to the third set, it’s always a 50-50 chance [of winning and losing]. I served a little bit better today, maybe. It was little bit of luck, waking up, and just putting the ball in the court.”

In the past, Bublik has shown a love/hate relationship with playing on clay. Now that he’s at a career-high ranking, perhaps, his mind set has changed? “I accept that part of the Tour – some of the most beautiful tournaments — is played on clay,” he said. “So, I learned to adapt and grew up – at least I think I did. It’s not easy for me; I complain. Now, I just try to get on and enjoy it.”

As for waking up early to play tennis, Bublik was asked about it by Tennis Channel’s Prakash Amritraj. He deadpanned: “I woke up at 7. Who wakes up at 7? When you’re a professional tennis player, Top 20, you don’t need to wake up at 7. You can relax more in your life already.”

Next, Bublik will face World No. 4 and third seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia, who recovered from a shaky start and overcame 24 unforced errors to beat No. 25 seed Sebastian Korda of the United States, 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-3, in two hours and 25 minutes on Arantxa Sanchez Court. Medvedev, who is one win away from reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in Madrid, came to within two points of defeat in his first meeting on clay with Korda. However, he held his serve from 4-5 deuce in the second set and eventually drew even by winning a tiebreaker.

“It was tough for many different reasons,” Medvedev said in his on-court interview. “He played well. The courts here except the central court are a bit smaller than I would like, so I play like someone is pushing me in the back. Even though my serve when I don’t need that much space, the feeling is still there like I am being pushed in the back. I need to get used to this feeling and try to find when to step in.

“I need to find my rhythm but both matches I played better and better. For sure the next one, if you play tougher and tougher opponents, I want to start like I played the third set. But if you win matches you are happy.”

Medvedev outpointed Korda 114-103. The win improved his head-to-head against the 26th-ranked Korda to 3-2 and he’s 24-2 against American competition since the start of the 2021 season.

Lehecka ends Monteiro’s surprising Madrid run, Nadal next

While qualifier Thiago Monteiro of Brazil produced the upset of the first week in Madrid by defeating No. 6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in the second round, his run of good fortune ended Monday as he lost to No. 30 seed Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic, 6-4, 7-6 (7) on Stadium 3.

The 118th-ranked Monteiro, who had only won three ATP Masters 1000 matches in his career prior to this week and was playing in his first ATP Masters 1000 third round, lost to Lehecka for the third straight time and second on clay. The Czech hopeful hit 24 winners, converted two of four break points and outpointed Monteiro 76-69.

The win advanced Lehecka to the fourth at a clay ATP Masters 1000 event for the second time in his career following his Monte-Carlo run last year. He improved to 8-1 versus left-handers on tour-level since start of the 2022 season.

Next, Lehecka will face unseeded Rafael Nadal, who looked physically strong and withstood the challenge of Pedro Cachin to earn his 409th career ATP Masters 1000 victory. The 37-year-old Spaniard beat the 91st-ranked Cachin of Argentina, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3, in three hours and four minutes on Manolo Santana Stadium to move into the fourth round as he continues to come back from injury.

The Mutua Madrid Open is just the third tournament of the year for the 512th-ranked Nadal, who lost in the second round in Barcelona last week and entered the ATP Masters 1000 event with a protected ranking. To his credit, he has shown signs of his old self in stringing together a trio of wins over American teenager Darwin Blanch, World No. 11 Alex de Minaur of Australia and Cachin to improve to 6-2.

“Some moments were good, some moments not good, but I found a way to go through,” Nadal said in his on-court interview. “In the third set, even with some mistakes, I was able to be a little more unpredictable and that probably changed the match.”

Nadal, who owns the most wins (58) and titles (five) in tournament history and has not lost before the quarterfinals in his last nine appearances, improved to 162-1 against players ranked outside the Top 50 on clay since the start of the 2005 season, losing only to then-No. 73 Horacio Zeballos in the 2013 Vina del Mar final.

“I am enjoying. Let’s see how I wake up tomorrow,” Nadal said, when asked about his health and fitness. “I don’t know. Day by day I am enjoying playing at home, it means everything to me. I am trying my best to keep dreaming. Tomorrow is another day to keep dreaming. To keep playing in front of this amazing crowd and to me that means everything.”

Sinner battles through hip ailment to beat Kotov

Top seed Jannik Sinner played through discomfort to his hip against No. 72 Pavel Kotov of Russia and won 6-2, 7-5 in an hour and 38 minutes under a closed roof on Manolo Santana Stadium Monday night.

The World No. 2 from Italy could be seen stretching out his hip multiple times during the third-round match. He broke his opponent’s serve at 4-5 in the second set and won on his fourth match-point opportunity after hitting a forehand winner to finish a six-shot rally.

“I have been struggling a little bit with my right hip,” Sinner said Don his on-court interview. “We’re trying to find a solution and I don’t think it’s anything serious. Sometimes I feel it more like today and some days are a little bit better.

“I have a good team behind me and we’ll try to get my body going for tomorrow and we’ll decide tomorrow what’s best for me and what’s best for the body.”

Sinner finished with 22 winners to 22 unforced errors and outpointed Kotov 66-52 to advance against No. 16 seed Karen Khachanov of Russia, who defeated No. 64 Flavio Cobolli of Italy, 7-5, 6-4, in an hour and 33 minutes under a closed roof on Arantxa Sanchez Stadium.

“Jannik is in the best form at the moment and he’s only lost a couple of matches since late last year. [But] there’s nothing to be scared of. I just need to prepare and find a good game plan and the weapons I need to beat him,” said Khachanov, who outpointed Cobolli 74-56.

Around the Caja Magica

Monday’s Mutua Madrid Open results

Tuesday’s Mutua Madrid Open order of play

By the numbers

No. 1 seed Jannik Sinner leads the ATP Tour in titles (3) this season and owns a 27-2 record (.931 winning percentage) in 2024.

“Quotable …”

“We know each other really well, we get along a lot because he has an Argentinean team. So, we know each other a lot, we practice a lot. Maybe that is something that makes us play good tennis every match.”

Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina, during his post-match news conference Sunday, after defeating American Tommy Paul to advance to the fourth round.