If Thursdays news that Serena Williams would miss the Mutua Madrid Open was something of a major disappointment, the pre-tournament charity event served as a timely reminder that there is plenty to be excited about heading into the WTA Premier Mandatory and Masters 1000 events.
Williams joined fellow big hitters Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka in skipping the 2018 edition at the Caja Magica, delaying her latest return to action as she bids to regain full fitness – no doubt a huge blow for tournament organisers.
But in an pre-tournament event the 36-year-old was scheduled to be involved in, a few of the events biggest draws featured as part of Mutua Charity Manolo Santana, which raises money for projects of the Mutua Madrileña Foundation aimed at eradicating gender violence.
With the roof open on a clear, but breezy, evening in the Spanish capital, Simona Halep – world No. 1 and defending champion in Madrid – was one of the first players to step onto court on Thursday night. The Romanian has history in her sights as she aims to become the first player to win three consecutive titles here – something even Rafael Nadal is yet to achieve.
Mutua Charity event teams & results
Mens Match 1: Player Team A VS Player Team B (1 point)
Womens Match 1: Player Team A VS Player Team B (1 point)
Mens Match 2: Player Team A VS Player Team B (1 point)
Womens Match 2: Player A Team VS Player Team B (1 point)
Mixed Match 1: (2 points)
Mixed Match 2: (3 points)
Team 1: Lopez, Mladenovic, Gasquet, Azarenka
Team 2: Sock, Halep, Del Potro, Suarez
Match 1: Lopez d. Sock
Match 2: Mladenovic d. Halep
Match 3: Gasquet d. Del Potro
Match 4: Suarez d. Azarenka
Match 5: Suarez/Sock d. Mladenovic/Gasquet
Match 6: Lopez/Azarenka d. Del Potro/Halep
Halep was soon followed by two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka, making her first appearance in a tournament outside of America since Wimbledon last year, having been embroiled in a lengthy custody battle over her son Leo. A former champion in Madrid herself, her return to the WTA Tour outside of the States feels long overdue.
Arguably the most welcome sight of all was when Juan Martin del Potro emerged shortly after. The mens draw is severely lacking challengers to the rampant Nadal who has already swept up titles in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona. The 2009 US Open winner is billed as one of the few contenders who could realistically cause an upset.
A man who will no doubt be more pleased to see the trio than most, tournament director Feliciano Lopez got proceedings underway, playing some entertaining stuff along with Americas Jack Sock.
While the two showmen kept things light-hearted, there was a more competitive feel to Kristina Mladenovics showdown with Halep – the French ace coming out on top in the briefest of encounters.
Del Potros first appearance on a clay court in 2018 saw him go toe-to-toe with Richard Gasquet in match 3. There were certainly signs of rust – an attempted drop-shot that landed generously on the service line was gleefully lapped up by the Frenchman – but his very presence on the dirt was greeted with the biggest cheer of the night from the Madrid crowd and his mighty forehand still packs the biggest punch on the ATP Tour.
Azarenka, sporting the funkiest of leggings, was the last of the Slam champions to feature in match play, taking on home favourite Carla Suarez. The Belarusian showed signs of the competitive spirit that saw her sit atop of the world rankings – calling down the umpire to reassess a line call in the opening game – and although far from her best, there was enough to suggest she poses a serious threat at the Caja Magica on its 10th birthday.
Singles wins for Lopez, Mladenovic, Gasquet and Suarez in the first to two games format were followed by doubles action. French duo Gasquet and Mladenovic teamed up against Suarez and Sock, with the latter pairing coming out on top.
The final match of the night was a star-studded contest between the remaining players, with Del Potro and Halep taking on Lopez and Azarenka to be crowned champions of the night.
It proved to be a dramatic finish, with the match going all the way in the tiebreak, and it was Lopezs team who ultimately came up trumps – winning the event 6-3.
Though the stadium was by no means packed out – with the event competing for the sporting affection of Madristas on the same eve Atletico Madrid faced Arsenal in the Europa League semi-finals – it was a well-received evening by those in attendance.
And, more importantly, it served as the most timely of reminders that theres still plenty to shout about in Madrid even in the absence of some of the worlds biggest stars.