Hard, the New Grass?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Howdy, everyone. Time to kick back a little now that the two big hard-court events of the Spring are over, and evaluate the takeways. One of the main ones, for me, came out of my visit with Earl "Butch" Buchholz Jr., the guy whose name I haven't been able to spell without going to a reference for almost thirty years now. Did it again; wrote it with a "cc" and one "h." For this reason alone, I sure am happy those dudes invented "Google."

Buchholz (that's him with The Mighty Fed, below), many of you know, is the former touring pro (same vintage as Rod Laver) who went on to become an enormously successful tennis entrepreneur. His masterpiece is the present-day Miami event, now the Sony-Ericsson Open, but formerly the Nasdaq 100, the Lipton, etc., etc. The event prospered and grew enormously over the past 25 years. Butch wanted to slow down a few  years ago, so he ended up selling the event to IMG; part of the deal was that Butch would stay on as the "face" of the tournament (as well, because he has a massive rolodex, and is known and greatly respected by most of the movers and shakers in South Florida).  I've always enjoyed working with him; he's one of those people who believes that the best thing to tell the press is. . . the truth.

In the last phase of his full-time career, Buchholz was dedicated to growing the game in South and Central America. He felt this desire almost as an obligation, because he saw that his own Miami event was embraced and shaped into what it is today with the support of an enormous Latin American community - residents in South Florida as well as visitors and tourists. He also foresaw the flood of South American players coming into the game, and he always wanted to give them something like The Grand Slam of South America. Unfortunately, the economic conditions in places like Argentina and Chile were (and are) such that his ultimate dream, to build a big-time South American circuit, has had to be scaled back significantly. But look at the progress that has been made: We have early season tournaments in Vina del Mar, Costa do Sauipe, Buenos Aires, and Acapulco.

Those are all clay-court events, and that's part of the reason they haven't gained better traction at some of the epicenters of clay-court tennis.  Say what?

"I think surface is definitely an issue," Butch told me. "I don't think most of the top guys want too play on clay at that time of year. It may look like clay-court tennis has never been in greater demand, or a more logical path to follow, but the reality is that the guys tgday want to play on hard. There isn't a big outcry for clay-court tournaments."

It sounds crazy, but consider this: Buchholz and company have been trying to get Nadal to play on the small South American circuit for some time now, and they've been willing to meet his price (in the way of appearance fees). But Nadal apparently doesn't want to play either on clay or in South America; where does he go instead? Rotterdam: indoor carpet.

Butch That's good background for understanding Buchholz's contention that "hard is the new grass." That is, just as grass courts were once the dominant surface (three of the four majors were on grass right up through the first decade of the Open era), the dominant surface now is hard courts. And all those so-called "clay-court specialists"? You could just as easily describe them as "hard-court specialists," an experiment that's also valuable because it shows how silly it is in today's game to call anyone any kind of "specialist."

Take Fernando Gonzalez, the Chilean star. He's a former Australian Open (hard-court) finalist, and his game, while developed on clay, is more lethal on hard courts. He and players with a comparable profile may have developed their games on clay, they may have emerged from a tennis culture rooted in clay, but their level of execution is so high (meaning, roughly, they play with such a persuasive combination of power and precision)  that they benefit from the greater degree of reward hard courts offer the bold and highly skilled player.

Let's remember that the highly feared clay-court specialist of yore was dangerous because he was extremely consistent and had loads of stamina. Today, consistency and stamina alone don't cut it - not at the highest level of the game. Today, great players (and Nadal is a good example, although his clay-court assets are exceptional by the standard of any era) simply outgrow what is traditionally thought of as the clay-court game. And the dwindling pool of players who seem to embrace some version of old-school clay-court tennis (Gael Monfils, despite the appearances, may be one of them - much to his deteriment) often don't play sufficiently aggressive, opportunistic tennis to flourish on hard courts.

All thiis might offend some the staunchest fans of the clay-court game, but here's an interesting question for you: Who are the best players produced on clay, and how much better, really, are they on clay (in other words, what extra-value skills and strengths do they bring to the field, or what extra talents does the field require them to bring?)?  Nadal? Federer? Del Potro? Djokovic? Verdasco? Davydenko? Gonzalez? You could probably argue that not only are these guys better on hard than on clay, despite their heritage, but that doing well on clay involves dumbing down their games for clay. This is something that comes more easily for Nadal than, say, Djokovic, but there it is.

It seems to me that what's really missing in the romanticized clay-court game these days is the player who could fully employ his artful touch and feel for the game - the player to whom the slow nature of clay is an invitation in improvise and get creative, the way an Adriano Panatta or Ilie Nastase once did (both were Roland Garros champions, but served-and-volleyed with the best of them). Inside Monfils is a fine hard-court player, dying to slough off the red socks and rope-a-dope game plan. And this, btw, is where I think Murray is a really intriguing case; he might bring back the type of skill-based clay-court expertise that is absent, now that so many of the top players are so good that clay just mutes their ball-striking skills.

This may make it easier to understand why Acapulco is lobbying (probably successfully) for a change from clay to hard courts. And why there's a quiet push in the ATP ranks to encourage such changes. Sure, some of this has to do with the hardships and adjustments required by bouncing from hard to clay to hard to clay, but that's neither here nor there - the players could just as soon be expressing their discontent that the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami are on hard, instead of clay. That doesn't seem to be the way things are developing, and I think it's because the players see hard courts as a better option, given where the game is today, style-wise.

This isn't to say that the spring clay circuit isn't a wonderful experience; the general aesthetics of the clay game, at least in terms of the ambient conditions and atmosphere, is splendid. Clay-court tennis is a welcome and refreshing change of pace, but if not longer shakes up the pecking order in the game, as it did in the heyday of a Jose Higueras. And let's face it, the Roland Garros series is a terrific narrative culminating in Paris. It's impossible to imagine anyone drastically tinkering with the tradition and flavor of the clay-court season. But now that the European surface no longer services a particular kind of player, or demands skills that the other surfaces do not, the differences are a matter of cosmetics.

Hard is the new grass - even the grass now plays more like the hard than ever before. Slowly, the hard-court game is rising high above both grass and clay, and it makes tennis on each of them look less like a different game than different scenery.

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