It's a week of mixed blessing for the ATP World Tour. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic has pulled the plug on the Madrid tournament for the second year in succession. Meanwhile, well to the east, Roger Federer has been feeling jolly and fulfilling his ambassadorial duties at the first Istanbul Open.
The Istanbul tournament might not even exist were it not for Federer's apparently unshakable thirst for experiencing new cultures. This guy is the greatest Swiss explorer since Bertrand Piccard, although I imagine the Turkish promoters have guaranteed that Federer won't have to poke around for gold or diamonds to make the trip financially worthwhile. The Istanbul Open is an ATP 250, technically a lowly, entry-level event. But it allows the hosts to pay appearance fees.
By contrast, Madrid is part of the elite, nine-event Masters 1000 series. Those tournaments are forbidden to pay appearance money, and playing them is mandatory for any player whose ranking qualifies him for the main draw. Thus, Djokovic's decision to skip it is noteworthy for a number of reasons.
On the heels of a news story published in the Spanish sports daily, Marca, rumors that Djokovic would pull out of Madrid have swirled for days.
The newspaper did not quote Djokovic, but wrote: "[Djokovic] believes that he would risk overdoing it if he played in both Rome and Madrid and so [he] will forgo the latter." Given that Madrid owner Ion Tiriac, a former player and current billionaire, is savvy and well-connected in the media, it was likely that he wanted to get ahead of the story and soften up the public for the blow.
Tournament officials made the formal announcement of Djokovic's withdrawal on the tournament website Thursday. But they, too, took the liberty to speak for the 27-year-old who has dominated the game thus far this year: "He'll take time out before continuing with his planned calendar."
While there are many potentially legitimate reasons for Djokovic's withdrawal, the fact he has said nothing is somewhat odd. Usually, players who withdraw for reasons other than injury feel duty-bound to make up for disappointing the promoters and fans with kind words about the event, sometimes even an appearance at the start of the event. Djokovic's silence thus far just makes you wonder if there isn't more -- an undeclared injury, ill feelings toward the promoters -- at work here. Or is it that he's going into seclusion, preparing for a trial by fire on red-hot clay in Paris.
While participation in Madrid was technically compulsory for Djokovic, the ATP allows exceptions for players who qualify under one of three conditions (each condition met allows a player to forgo one Masters event): having at least 600 career wins, being 31 or older or having played on tour for more than 12 years. With 634 wins, Djokovic is entitled to skip Madrid.
In a day and age when sports management agencies and individual managers are also involved in tournament promotions, it's hard to tell why some players skip -- or play -- some events. But Djokovic would appear to have the best reason of all: While he's won nearly everything in sight thus far in 2015, the single greatest mission he's faced since the beginning of 2012 still lies unfulfilled. He hasn't won the French Open.
Madrid and the Rome Masters, which take place in back-to-back weeks starting Monday, are major tuneup events for Roland Garros. It appears that Djokovic doesn't want to expend the energy it would require to win both those events and then have to play the French Open on just one week of rest.
This is the second consecutive year that Djokovic is taking a pass on Madrid. Last year, he was struggling with a right wrist injury incurred at the Monte Carlo Masters, even though two weeks separate that event from Madrid. At the time, Djokovic told the press: "I did everything possible in order to play in Madrid, which is one of the biggest events of the year, but unfortunately my right arm injury has flared up again."
This time, his only excuse would seem to be, if not fatigue, then the desire to avoid overextending himself in the coming weeks. This gives promoters of the Masters Series events, especially those of the six that are, like Madrid and Rome, back-to-back, good reason to feel some alarm. The trend among the very top players seems to be a sharp loss of interest in playing Masters events in successive weeks.
This played out at the Miami Masters (where Federer was a no-show), which immediately follows Indian Wells. And each of those events is a 10-day tournament, offering significantly more rest and recovery time than the one-week back-to-back Masters events on Euroclay. Too, there is no Grand Slam event immediately after Miami, as there is the week after Rome.
Still, taking a pass on Madrid is a calculated risk on the part of Djokovic. Anyone can appreciate that he's done great work this year. He's 30-2, with four premium titles -- a Grand Slam and three Masters 1000s. (He's the only man ever to bag the first three Masters in any year.) This start is comparable to the one he put together in his career year of 2011. Note, though, that during that run Djokovic played (and won) both Madrid and Rome.
Djokovic knows he risks losing some of his momentum by forgoing Madrid. (He will go into the Rome Masters after three idle weeks.) But he has shown over the years that he doesn't need a great deal of match play to find his form. He won the Australian Open for an Open era record fifth time this year with just three matches under his belt in the new year. Those were two wins and a loss at Doha, halfway around the world from the site of the first major in Melbourne.
But if Djokovic doesn't necessarily suffer a loss of momentum, he certainly is inviting an increase in pressure. A misfire in Rome ("any given day" and all that) could seriously damage his chances in Paris.
Make no mistake: Roland Garros is by far the most likely reason Djokovic is detouring around Madrid. But it would still be nice to hear those words coming from Djokovic's own mouth.