The first major combined tennis event since the Miami Open is underway on red clay in Madrid's Caja Magica, or "Magic Box." Both the ATP and WTA harbor several players who might be hoping that something magical will happen to them in the coming days in Madrid, or perhaps even the following week at Rome, to turn around their fortunes.
Anyone who has experienced a recession will tell you that the longer a slump goes on, the tougher it is to break it. The longest WTA losing streak on record belongs to Arantxa Rus, who was beaten in 17 consecutive tour-level matches in 2013. The all-time record belongs to quirky Vince Spadea, a part-time rapper wannabe who lost 21 successive ATP main-tour matches before ending the skid in June 2000 in spectacular fashion -- with a five-set, six-hour (including a two-hour rain delay) upset of British favorite and No. 14 seed Greg Rusedski at Wimbledon.
Neither record of futility is in danger at the moment, although Kristina Mladenovic challenged Rus' mark in late 2017/early 2018, losing 15 in a row. Mladenovic is still trying to recover from that, with so-so results.
As the Madrid Open gets rolling -- and with Roland Garros a mere three weeks away -- here are some of the well-known players who could use a few good results (each player's win-loss record counts only main-tour matches).
Alexander Zverev: ATP No. 3, 11-8 in 2019
Many thought this was the year Zverev, aided by supercoach Ivan Lendl (hired late last summer), would crack the Grand Slam code. Instead, he has yet to reach the quarterfinals in 2019 at an event more prestigious than an ATP 500 tournament. Take away the four wins that carried him into the Acapulco final and he's one match below .500. Lendl doesn't loom very large in Zverev's saga -- one way or the other.
The defending champion at Madrid and finalist at Rome has his work cut out after taking losses most recently to ATP No. 81 Nicolas Jarry (Barcelona) and No. 47 Christian Garin (Munich). Zverev entered Munich via an 11th-hour wild card, hoping to build his confidence with a good run on home soil before the start of Madrid. He won just one match.
Zverev rose in the rankings with dazzling speed at a young age. At 22, the self-assured German is facing his first real crisis.
Sloane Stephens: WTA No. 8, 8-7 in 2019
Stephens is in a slump. So what else is new? She has conditioned us over the years to accept that her A-game and motivation lie dormant for long periods, only to spring to life unexpectedly. She's in a down phase now, although she has plenty to be upbeat about. Stephens recently got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, soccer pro Jozy Altidore.
Of greater import, perhaps, to her career: Last week she hired veteran coach Sven Groeneveld, who has worked successfully with many top players, including Maria Sharapova.
Stephens made the French Open finals in 2018. She has won on green Har-Tru clay (Charleston, 2016) but feels equally at home on the slower red clay. This would be a logical time to snap out of dormancy.
"Sometimes things are really s---ty, and they always get better. So that's good," Stephens reminded reporters after playing a terrible match and losing to qualifier Stefanie Voegele at Indian Wells in March. "I mean, I think things will get better. Might not be in the next week. Might not be next week. But for sure in the next couple of months maybe things will, you know, figure themselves out."
Aryna Sabalenka: WTA No. 10, 13-8 in 2019
That record doesn't look so bad -- until you factor in that the 20-year-old Belarusian's name was on everyone's lips at the beginning of the year. The nearly universal dark horse pick to win the Australian Open, Sabalenka has cooled off dramatically. She's just 4-4 since the beginning of February and 2-3 since Indian Wells -- and she already lost on Saturday in Madrid.
Marin Cilic: ATP No. 11, 4-6 in 2019
A year ago, Cilic was the defending Australian Open and Wimbledon finalist and a top-five player. But last month, the 30-year-old Croatian fell out of the top 10 for the first time since October 2016. He recently told the ATP media staff: "The beginning of the season wasn't that great for me. I had some problems with the knee. Just a little bit in and out with my form with that, and these past three, four tournaments."
Cilic took a last-minute wild card into the Budapest 250 at the end of last month. The top seed, he had a match point against Pablo Cuevas in his first outing, but lost. "I feel that I still have a lot of time," Cilic said, "But I'm trying to also use every day the best you can because you're always in a fight against time."
Karen Khachanov: ATP No. 13, 5-10 in 2019
OK, he's just 22, already the winner of a Masters 1000 (Paris 2018), and one of the brightest prospects to emerge from the ATP's Next Gen campaign. Cut him as big a break as you like, but the reality is that some of the other celebrated youngsters, including his Russian countryman Daniil Medvedev (ranked one tick below Khachanov but coming on strong), are playing very well. Don't think Khachanov isn't aware of it.
Last year at this time, Khachanov was barely inside the top 40 but was 15-9, with one title (at Marseilles). His best result this year has been an Indian Wells quarterfinal run, ended by Rafael Nadal. "I'm taking it as a positive because, after [the] last few tournaments, I'm playing much better," Khachanov said after that loss. "I had a much better level in this match."
Khachanov hasn't won a match since. Taking a wild card into Munich proved a bust. Clay isn't his favorite or best surface. He's in trouble.
Daria Kasatkina: WTA No. 21, 3-9 in 2019
The versatile 21-year-old Russian cracked the top 10 following her win on home soil in Moscow last October, but she hasn't been able to maintain her momentum. Asked recently by a WTA staffer how she would describe her 2019 season thus far, Kasatkina had a one-word answer: "Disaster."
Kasatkina tried to reset before the Stuttgart event two weeks ago with a few days of work at a friend's tennis academy, but she won just one match in Germany. She remains without a coach but isn't panicking. "It's OK. It's experience, it's life," she said of her slump. "It is important to go through these difficult situations, difficult periods and just keep going."
Kasatkina loves to play on clay, but she already lost in Madrid on Saturday to resurgent Victoria Azarenka. When it rains, it pours.
Caroline Garcia: WTA No. 22, 5-8 in 2019
She was ranked No. 4 as of last September, but her ranking began to drop precipitously when, as the defending champ at back-to-back events Wuhan and Beijing, she flamed out at both. She opened her 2019 campaign with two successive first-round losses and has yet to win three consecutive matches at any tournament.
Kyle Edmund: ATP No. 22, 5-7 in 2019
Are the 24-year-old British player's one-dimensional style -- built on a massive forehand and serve -- and his relatively poor movement betraying him? Edmund responded to his Australian Open first-round loss to fading Tomas Berdych with intensive training, after which he played (and won) the Indian Wells Challenger. It hardly helped. He managed two wins at the main event and two at the Miami Open, but he's 1-3 since then, and clay will be challenging for him.
David Goffin: ATP No. 25, 9-10 in 2019
This fleet, smooth "thinking man's player" suddenly has a lot to think about himself -- mostly, the loss of consistency and that great capacity for problem-solving that lifted him as high as No. 7 at the start of 2018. The tone for his year was set at his first event, Doha, where Goffin lost to No. 116-ranked qualifier Ricardas Berankis. Goffin picked up a few wins last week in Estoril, which should help.
Jelena Ostapenko: WTA No. 31, 5-11 in 2019
Ostapenko won the French Open in 2017 a day after her 20th birthday. Her subsequent slump was understandable: The distractions and pressure were unexpected. But she hasn't really pulled out of it, and these days the cheerful and powerful Latvian seems adrift.
Ostapenko's go-for-broke style, so deadly in that French Open final against Simona Halep, becomes impossible to sustain if a player lacks confidence. Ostapenko told reporters earlier in the year: "I understand if I'm going to hit every ball so hard, it's going to be tough to win the match because I will make a lot of unforced errors." And when she's not winning matches, she's more prone to making those unforced errors.
Lucas Pouille: ATP No. 32, 5-7 in 2019
This 25-year-old Frenchman got off to a terrific start this year, blasting his way to the Australian Open semifinals before eventual champion Novak Djokovic eliminated him. He also received a lot of attention for hiring a French compatriot, former WTA star Amelie Mauresmo, as his coach. But the fairytale took an unexpected, sobering twist when Pouille went winless in his next five consecutive outings. Pouille dropped down to the Challenger level to collect some wins before Madrid.
Kristina Mladenovic: WTA No. 64, 8-10 in 2019
While she managed to avoid the notoriety of breaking Rus' losing-streak record, Mladenovic has had continued difficulty finding the form that carried her into the top 10 in October 2017 -- shortly before the start of that horrific losing streak. She hits a big ball, but she's 6-feet tall and doesn't move exceptionally well. "Kiki" knocked out No. 1 Naomi Osaka in Dubai this year, but she hasn't beaten anyone ranked higher than No. 37 since.
Ekaterina Makarova: WTA No. 89, 0-3 in 2019
Could this 30-year-old two-time Grand Slam semifinalist, who was ranked as high as No. 8 just three years ago, really be winless in 2019? It's an amazing detail, especially in light of the fact that the first 18 WTA tournaments this year were all won by different women. Makarova has been playing minor league W25 tournaments in an effort to improve her ranking, but she is a dismal 4-9 in those events.