Controversy over cakes and speeches, an Andy Murray title and much more

Sports

The Madrid Open concluded over the weekend and, wow, it’s tough to know where to begin with this one.

Aryna Sabalenka defeated Iga Swiatek 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, for the trophy in the latest chapter of their burgeoning rivalry, and Carlos Alcaraz won his second straight title on clay with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory over qualifier Jan-Lennard Struff. But with all due respect to those achievements, neither is the lasting memory from the event.

It can’t be sugarcoated: This tournament was messy.

The first controversy started when a TikTok user pointed out the tournament’s use of models in place of ball kids on Center Court — and the difference in their uniforms. Backlash ensued.

And then, another disparity was thrust into the spotlight Friday, the birthday of both of the eventual singles champions. Sabalenka and Alcaraz were each given cakes to celebrate the occasion, and they were not of equal size or grandeur, as pointed out by many. Victoria Azarenka even implied the cakes were indicative of the difference in treatment between male and female players at the event:

Tournament director Feliciano Lopez was quick to defend the difference in the cakes, reasoning that the event was in Alcaraz’s home country and that he had just played his match, but the #Cakegate damage was already done.

On Saturday, after Sabalenka won the title, she jokingly credited the cake for the victory during her on-court speech. And Swiatek took a brief moment during her speech to criticize the less-than-ideal scheduling she had dealt with during multiple matches in the tournament, including during the semifinals. “It’s not fun to play at 1 a.m., though, so I’m happy anyway that I was able to get past this experience and survive and be in the final,” Swiatek said as Lopez stood behind her.

Then, in Sunday’s doubles final, Azarenka and Beatriz Haddad Maia defeated Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula 6-1, 6-4, for the title. But none of the four players was given an opportunity to speak during the trophy presentation. Because all four competitors had spoken following Saturday’s men’s doubles final, and there was a substantial amount of time before the start of the men’s singles final Sunday, there was no obvious reason for the snub. Azarenka and Gauff took to Twitter soon after to voice their displeasure and say what they would have said during the completely expected speech component of the ceremony.

As one might expect, the muting of the players did not go unnoticed by their peers and others in the sport, nor was it well received. Ons Jabeur called it “sad and unacceptable” and Rennae Stubbs said it was a “disgrace.”

When reached Monday, a spokesperson told ESPN, “For the time being, the tournament will not comment on the matter.” So far, it has offered no public explanation as to why the women’s doubles players didn’t get a chance to speak.

Pegula spoke to reporters on Tuesday in Rome about the incident. “What happened in Madrid, it was really disappointing,” she said. “I know a lot of what happened, detail leading up to the event, just because Vika and I are on Players’ Council. … I don’t know what century everyone was living in when they made that decision or how they actually had a conversation and decided, like, ‘Wow, this is a great decision we’re going to do and there’s going to be no backlash against this.'”

With all of that happening at just one tournament, it’s almost hard to believe there were other things going on, but here’s what else you might have missed, and what’s ahead as both the WTA and ATP tours head to Rome for the Italian Open.


Back in the winner’s circle

Andy Murray and Gael Monfils have played against one another many times over the course of their respective careers. They’ve faced off at majors, at Masters 1000-level events, and now, in 2023, they can add a Challenger tournament to that list.

Murray, the three-time major champion and former world No. 1, and Monfils, the two-time Grand Slam semifinalist and former world No. 6, played in the opening round of the Open Aix Provence Crédit Agricole Challenger Tour event Wednesday. And while it’s safe to say neither is currently playing their highest-level tennis, and they are clearly looking for some match time on clay ahead of the French Open wherever they can get it, the duo still put on a show with flashes of their vintage form:

Murray ultimately won the match 6-3, 6-2, for his first victory on clay this year, and his hot streak continued throughout the week. The 35-year-old won the title with a 2-6, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Tommy Paul, ranked No. 17 in the world. It was Murray’s first title since 2019, and his first on clay since 2016. The win also marked the longest gap between Challenger titles in history, as he earned his last one in 2005. Murray is now ranked No. 42 — his highest ranking since coming back from his first hip surgery in 2018.

And, perhaps best of all, especially since (reminder!) Mother’s Day is this coming weekend, his mom, Judy, was able to be in the stands for the victory, thanks to a truly enviable flight deal.

Winners all around.


Comeback szn?

Murray wasn’t the only US Open champion earning some new hardware at a lower-level event this weekend. Sloane Stephens, the 2017 victor in New York, nabbed her first title of the season and first on clay since 2016, at the WTA 125 Saint-Malo event. She recorded a semifinal victory over former world No. 3 Elina Svitolina, who recently returned from maternity leave, and a 6-3, 6-4 win over Greet Minnen in the final — and got some much-needed momentum after losing in Madrid in the first round.

The 30-year-old has proved to be a formidable foe on the clay during her career and reached the French Open final in 2018. Could this be the confidence boost she needs to make a deep run in Rome and then Paris? Stay tuned.


Nadal watch

Another tournament, another Rafael Nadal withdrawal. He announced he would be missing this week’s Italian Open as he continues to recover from the hip injury he sustained at the Australian Open in January.

As the tournament in Rome is one of the last ahead of the French Open, which gets underway on May 28, Nadal’s participation in the major is now in serious doubt.

“Despite having noticed an improvement in recent days, there have been many months without having been able to train at a high level and the readaptation process has its times and I have no choice but to accept them and continue working,” Nadal, 36, said in Spanish on social media.

Nadal is, of course, the “King of Clay” and a 14-time champion at Roland Garros. He hasn’t missed the event since his debut in Paris in 2005, but it’s starting to look as if that unbelievable streak may be coming to an end. It’s truly hard to imagine the tournament without him in it, but that just might be the reality.


‘It’s become unbearable’

Amanda Anisimova announced Friday she would be taking an indefinite break from the sport. In a post on Instagram, the 21-year-old American was heartbreakingly candid about the reasons.

“I’ve really been struggling with my mental health and burnout since the summer of 2022,” Anisimova wrote. “It’s become unbearable being at tennis tournaments. At this point my priority is my mental well-being and taking a break for some time. I’ve worked as hard as I could to push through it.”

Anisimova reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2019 and made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last summer, but has since lost in the first round at the US Open and Australian Open and hasn’t won a match since February. Her young career has been marked by monumental success but also devastating lows, including the death of her father, who was also her coach, in 2019.

While everyone’s story is different, Anisimova is just the latest player to take a hiatus from competition due to burnout. Garbine Muguruza, a two-time major champion, is currently taking a break of her own from the tour, and Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam champion, has previously done the same.


Another setback for Raducanu

On Wednesday, Emma Raducanu announced via a written letter posted to her social media accounts that she would be undergoing surgeries on both hands, as well as a future procedure for her ankle, and would be sidelined from competition for the next several months. Raducanu, 20, is expected to miss the French Open and Wimbledon as she recovers.

“It pains me that I will miss the Summer events and I tried to down play the issues so I thank all my fans who continued to support me when you did not know the facts,” she wrote.

Raducanu said the past 10 months have been “difficult.” Since her miraculous run at the US Open in 2021, in which she became the first player in history to win a Grand Slam title as a qualifier, Raducanu has struggled with consistency and a series of injuries. She hasn’t advanced past the second round at a major since her breakthrough in New York, and this week she fell out of the top 100 after having to withdraw from Madrid just hours before her scheduled first-round match.

Gauff, Stephens, Holger Rune and her 2021 US Open final opponent, Leylah Fernandez, were among the many players who wished her well online.


Name a better trio

Ever wonder what 50 Grand Slam titles look like? Wonder no more. During the Miami Grand Prix on Sunday, Serena and Venus Williams posed with Roger Federer — all three were in attendance for the F1 race.

Sure, there was that coronation thing across the pond, but this was the only royal gathering that I cared about this weekend.

And in case you were wondering what 51 Grand Slam titles look like, Juan Martin del Potro was also there, but sadly there appears to be no picture of all four of these legends together.

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