Blue in the Clay

The Madrid Open’s blue clay exposes the tennis tour’s divided loyalties.
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Photo via pegamentofix on Flickr

As the top players on both the men’s and women’s tennis tours battle it out on the terre battue clay courts of the Mutua Madrid Open, the conversation has almost universally been focused on what lies beneath their feet. Madrid—a 1000-level tournament en route to the only Grand Slam played on clay, the French Open—unveiled its much, much reviled blue clay courts on Sunday. Even players normally reticent to voice their opinions have burst forth with Smurf analogies and irritated diatribes.

That’s because professional clay court tennis is almost exclusively played on red clay consisting of ground-up brick. The dyed cerulean grit thus looks starkly artificial amongst the earthen hues of Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome. But it’s not just the aesthetic appeal that has the top players unsettled. Madrid and its brethren are considered to be warmup events for the all-important French Open, and the prospect of inconsistent conditions just three weeks before a Slam has given players of all rankings heart palpitations. In fact, Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay himself, has been leading the dissenting party ever since tournament director Ion Tiriac announced his plans years ago.

The players are most obviously concerned that the treated clay plays differently, and there’s quite a bit of evidence that supports their handwringing. Many claim that the surface is excessively slippery and that the ball bounces lower, requiring adjustments that are not relevant to the tournaments that follow. But perhaps the most convincing evidence is the curious results, namely the fact that Nadal was ousted in just the third round of Madrid. While you let that sink in, consider the fact that the 25-year-old six-time French Open champion hasn’t lost this early at a clay court tournament since 2004.

Beyond questionable results, however, the tournament’s purportedly erratic playing surface is a greater problem because it counteracts the organizational logic of the tennis schedule. The tour is generally arranged so that most of the smaller tournaments act as stepping-stones to whichever Grand Slam is next on the horizon. The clay-laden Italian Open in Rome, for example, is scheduled for May instead of the middle of August because players need to prepare for the US Open’s pavement courts over the summer. So, despite the fact that these tournaments are autonomous entities with concerns for their own respective fortunes, they are organized with an eye on the greater good of the sport: to act as a unified season of preparation. Viewed in this light, a tournament with a wild-card surface that comes less than a month before a Slam seems incredibly reckless.

For its part, Madrid claims that the color change makes the ball easier to see, which is grounded in demonstrable fact. According to USA Today, Madrid asserts that, “visibility of the yellow ball on a blue surface will improve by at least 15% compared to the red clay, due to the increased color contrast.” Visibility was also cited as the reason for the US Open’s switch from green to blue hard courts in 2005, and the same USA Today article points out that “84% of all hardcourt tournaments and 49% of all ATP World tour tournaments” are in blue.

When the US Open made the switch in 2005, however, it wasn’t just Flushing that committed to the change, but the entire US Open Series. In all, ten tournaments converted, preserving the notion that the summer hard court season is just that: a season with cohesion leading up to the main event. Madrid, on the other hand, forged ahead on its own. The ATP approved of the change, yes, but Madrid is the only clay tournament that enacted a “solution” to the visibility “problem.” A critic’s logic dictates that, if visibility truly were a concern for broadcasting clay court matches, then all clay courts would follow suit.

They weren’t all changed, however, and as such, Madrid’s blue clay is perceived to be more of a stunt than a genuine attempt to better the sport. One need look no further than the mounting headlines or the spike in search volume for the words “blue clay” to understand: Madrid is enjoying massive amounts of publicity as a result of the controversy, fueling the implicit belief that the change is a self-interested one. (The fact that Tiriac is now talking to reporters about changing the balls to fluorescent orange next year isn’t helping the matter, either.) And thus, amongst heated debates about consistency, court speeds, and bounce geometry, we come to the underlying root of player discontent: a perceived marketing ploy from a rogue tournament came at the expense of their comfort—and the powers that be in the ruling bodies allowed it to happen.

The red fury over blue clay might seem like overkill at this point, but the urgency with which the industry has kept the debate going suggests that the disagreement is about more than mere change. It is also about the power structure on the tour, in which a tournament can unilaterally enact a (literally) game-changing adjustment, arguably to the detriment of the players and sport, if it yields positive results for the tournament in question. For this reason, even if the Madrid results had been predictably run-of-the-mill, with no unusual upsets, the debate about the surface would likely not have been put to rest. Nadal could have hoisted the trophy overhead come Sunday, like he has many times before on clay, but he would have still taken issue with what lied beneath his feet for long after. Now, with the unusual taste of embarrassing defeat in his mouth, the conflict will only grow more heated.


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