Apr 18, 2014 fbook icon twitter icon rss icon

Blue Clay Steals Spotlight from Roger Federer at Madrid Open

Madrid is mercifully behind us, and hopefully we can soon stop hearing the lingering refrains lambasting the blue surface at the tournament this year. While Roger Federer kept his usual calm demeanor, rolling with whatever conditions came his way and needing no excuses en route to his third Masters title in the Spanish capital, his fellow contenders in the triumvirate at the top of the men’s game bombed out and blamed the court for their struggles. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the two men who have pushed Federer for a large part of his career, were left flummoxed by the clay underfoot.

The clay in Madrid, at its structural base, is not substantively different than the red clay that graces the upcoming Italian Open at the Foro Italico in Rome or at Roland Garros, where tennis’ second Grand Slam event of the season will commence later this month. The iron oxide that gives the red clay its color is extracted, yielding a white clay that is then dyed blue, baked to the proper consistency and crushed to the corresponding grit. The problem was an overzealous attempt to correct the wonky bounces of tournaments past. Whether red or blue, the real problem was in a surface that was compacted too tightly and failed to drain properly.

Clay, at its heart, depends on drainage. When the clay can’t drain properly, it plays like a sheet of melting ice. This problem just as easily could have occurred on a red-clay surface; it has been a common lament in the past in Madrid, even before the shift this season to the blue pigment instead of the rust-colored crushed clay brick of tradition. The problem this year is that the color of the surface made it look as well as feel like ice, and the perception is now starting to develop that blue somehow makes brick much slipperier than red — or, for that matter, the green which has also been a traditional clay tennis court color for decades.

Why did the tournament make the switch in the first place? ”It is the duty of organizers and players to think about the future. This sport is fighting for television time, for sponsors, for money to make this sport better than it is today,” Ion Tiriac, the man whose ownership group manages the Madrid Masters, said about the decision. ”If the ball can be seen better, that is good for a television viewer. In every decade the game jumps enormously toward more professionalism.”

Novak Djokovic, before his quarterfinal against fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic in straight sets, frothed. “They are claiming that the court is exactly the same as red clay, which is not true because there is a big difference,” the defending champion said. “You are tripping, slipping all the time, sliding. The winner will be the one who doesn’t get hurt by the end of the week.” After losing to Tipsarevic, Djokovic could only say, “I want to forget this week as soon as possible and move on to the real clay courts. Here you can’t predict the ball bounce or movement. They can do whatever they want, but I won’t be here next year if this clay stays.”

Rafael Nadal, who had his own losing experience to a compatriot when Fernando Verdasco outlasted him in the third set of their third-round match. Nadal was up 6-3 3-6 5-2 when he allowed his opponent to rally off five straight games to steal away advancement in the draw. He too was livid about the surface conditions. ”Being able to move is very important for me and if I can’t move well, I can’t hit the ball well either,” said the two-time Madrid champion. “If things don’t change, this will be one less tournament on the calendar for me. This surface destabilizes the game. It is a completely different game and I don’t want to take risks.”

Already Tiriac has said that the composition of the court surface will change ahead of next year’s tournament. The courts indeed were slippery. The bounces, despite the intentions of the harder pack, were as errant at times as they had ever been. Substantive changes to the compacting process are possible and within the tournament’s means. Changing the pigment of the clay should not be among those changes, though… players play on blue surfaces all the time during the hard-court season, and the color of the court should not affect a player’s game. The issue of slip is a pertinent one, but one wholly unaffected by color.

So while red becomes the color of choice through the rest of the clay season, culminating over the next month in the French Open in Paris, Madrid has shed some light on how we are still guided by the biases of our eyesight rather than the tactile sensation that is really affecting one’s play. We should not judge professional tennis tournaments by the color of the courts, but by the quality of the playing experience they offer. When players threaten to boycott a tournament based on color, they illuminate a latent subconscious bias that is counterproductive at best. The players, the tournament, and everyone else who follows and supports the game of tennis need to focus on the true issues that plagued the surface instead of letting their eyes play tricks on their minds…

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