What's With This Blue?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 /by

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by Pete Bodo

[For more on the Australian Open, also check out our latest podcast, which ought to be live later this afternoon. And while you're at it, check out our new feature, The Daily Spin.]

It's the first bleary-eyed morning of the year's first Grand Slam event, and I find myself once again wondering, "What's with this blue?" Granted, the potter's clay-colored court Down Under is a vast improvement over the Marlin blue the Aussies featured last year. It's an interesting, easy-on-the-eyes color. But it would look even nicer if the areas outside the lines were a complimentary, pale shade - a light green, perhaps?

But the Lords of Tennis seem to have this absurd fixation with blue, especially dark blue. I felt that way last year at this time, and also when tuned in to the ATP World Tour Finals. I also thought that when I heard Ion Tiriac floating the idea of blue clay courts. And I keep asking myself, why blue?

It's not like blue is a color that's psychologically associated with the game. Blue is a maritime color, and a Big Sky color; tennis is a grass and red-dirt game, played on dry land (unless you're on a cruise ship). Tennis evokes the solid, not the liquid or the transparent. Originally, those who could afford to contemplate the aesthetics of tennis painted the top skin of their hard courts in a maroon and green combination; the court itself was green, with white lines; the surrounding area a medium shade of brick, not unlike red clay, or terre battue.  Consciously or not, those original colors nodded pleasantly to the roots of tennis as a game played mostly on green grass and maroon clay. Now that was psychologically satisfying.

So, why blue? Just to be different? Or maybe the lords hired one of those market-research firms that tries to associate consumer choices and desires with specific colors or designs. Let me ask you this, lords: Haven't you heard expressions like, I'm feeling a little blue...He's got the blues...Blue Monday...Or maybe the idea is to get people so bummed out and depressed that they just want to stay in the house and...watch tennis!

So that's my rant. Let's move the game and forget this silly obsession with blue and start looking at nice, organic, light-side colors - the grays and tans and greens and maybe even yellows. Let's emphasize the bright and mellow, the earthy.

And while we're on the subject of earthy, did you catch Serena Williams' brief interview yesterday during the evening ESPN broadcast? I had to ask myself, what's with this giggly, girly Serena all of a sudden? Maybe she was just in a good mood. Or maybe her handlers told her that she looked pretty scary during that unpleasant incident that ended her semifinal match with Kim Clijsters at the last major, so it would be in her own best interest to really ham it up, and show a softer, gentler side to help wipe away memories of the foot-fault affair. Well, Serena really wanted to be an actress, and only her lack of can't miss talent enabled us to keep her for a little while longer. Now she can act - as well as rain perdition down on all comers.

BTW, did you see what a big deal was made out of Serena's streak of 41 consecutive first-round wins at Grand Slam events?  Darren Cahill joined that conversation with an unfortunate prelude,  citing Roger Federer's record of having appeared in 22 consecutive Grand Slam-event semifinals, and then segued to praise Serena's mark. He didn't equate the records, but just discussing them in the same breath seemed a bit of a reach.

Just out of curiosity, I checked the records of a few other top women, and came up with this: Kim Clijsters lost in the first round of a major just twice in her career (once in Australia, and once at Roland Garros), in the first year she played said majors. Henin has lost four times (also early in her career) and Serena's sister Venus has suffered just three first-round losses at majors. A consecutive anything streak is worth noting, of course. But first-round losses are oddities, not indicators -- especially so on the WTA tour -- and are virtually unknown once a player has a year or two of experience under her belt. So it begs the question, does the streak deserve to be highlighted and emphasized, or is it merely worth a mention and tip of the hat? 

In any event, I thought Serena at times yesterday looked awesome; she's the only woman who can hurt you as much with her serve as her return (see yesterday's post). But I do wonder about her stamina, should she get into a fracas with a woman who can move her around the court and make her work for every point.

Roger Federer had a few uncomfortable moments before he rassled down Igor Andreev. My feeling is that the model for playing Federer has been established: engage him and try to extend the points as much as possible, and work his backhand with the high-bouncing forehand (the court is especially bounce-friendly). Await the inevitable letdown(s) that have been creeping into The Mighty Fed's game, now that he's entering the "all gravy" phase of his career.

Watching Roger yesterday, I had to re-examine some of my own assumptions - the ones drawn from around the time of the U.S. Open final until now. I've expected Federer to be prone to lapses of focus and a certain amount of mental and emotional fatigue (or disinterest) now that he's bagged the Grand Slam singles title record. And I believe he was victim to them at the tail end of last year. But it's a new year, and perhaps that changes things more than we might expect.

All the while, I've also considered (and written about) Federer's greatest asset, his simple love of the game. He's a happy camper playing tennis, and that suggests that maybe that major No. 15 wasn't really such a big deal. Given how much the guy enjoys the game, maybe after Wimbledon last year year, he was thinking: Fifteen, great! That doesn't mean I have to stop now, does it? 

Federer has declared his intention to keep playing ad infinitum, and why not? This guy just isn't in a hurry to collect his trophies and deposit tickets and go into hiding in the Arabian desert. You might as well ask Bubba if he'd like to stop drinking beer, or bass fishing.

It naturally follows that Federer may be less prone to those anticipated lapses, or days when he simply feels too sideways to produce his best tennis. The temptation to psycho-analyze his competitive identity and accomplishments can lead to some pretty pat assumptions about the state of his motivation, but let's remember that Federer didn't set out to break Pete Sampras's mark; it just became part of the job description, and like any good employee he just kept his mouth shut and fulfilled it. This tournament may tell us a lot about whether the 15th Grand Slam was merely another milestone of Roger's journey on smooth pavement, or a sign sending him off on a fork in the road that quickly turns bumpy. I'm leaning back toward the former.

I thought James Blake looked sharp in his win over Arnaud Clement, and particularly good in his subsequent on-court interview with Pam Shriver. His light-hearted mood and lively, utterly relaxed banter with Shriver had to make you smile. I was impressed by how relaxed James looked, which bodes well for him in his next match, against Juan Martin del Potro. Those swirling rumors about the condition of Delpo's wrist are ominous; things like that seem to get out and into the public forum to prepare us all for disappointment. You can't blame Delpo or his camp from looking for a soft landing, but there's always a flicker of the white flag implicit in such revelations. And that means Blake's chances of getting by Delpo automatically improve. I'd look for the upset in that one.

I also liked it when Blake related how he and his American countryman John Isner were originally scheduled to play side-by-side on outside courts. "I could have been yelling over, Go Dawgs," Blake said, referring to Isner's college days as a Georgia Bulldog. "And he could have yelled, Go Crimson!" -- a reference to the small northeastern University where Blake spent some time before turning pro. And it was telling how Blake said that worst thing about being banished to the hinterlands (now that he slipped out of the Top 25) was the absence of Hawkeye and the line-call challenge system. Until recently, Blake could always count on being on a court using Hawkeye, and he said he found it somewhat unsettling to have to make do with it.

It's just another good reason for Blake to look upon his exile as a wake-up call. Have you hugged your digital aides and accessories today?

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