Is Hard the New Clay?

by: Peter Bodo | March 09, 2011

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by Pete Bodo

It's always a good idea to hold conventional wisdom up to a critical light and give it a good once-over with a fresh eye, although most of us just aren't sufficiently alert or conscious to do it on our own as a matter of habit, the way we make sure we do that stretching for 15 minutes a day. It usually takes some prod—a conversation, an event—to make us re-think what we take for granted. A conversation I had the other day with Butch Buchholz, one of the leading entrepreneurs of the Open era and founder of the upcoming Sony Ericsson Open, served just that purpose in a way that's relevant to the brace of big combined events that are almost upon us, Indian Wells and Miami.

For a number of years now, some players and pundits have complained that playing these two ranking-points and prize-money rich events back-to-back, on hard courts, with the clay-court circuit in Europe just around the corner, puts too great a demand on the players. The underlying problem appears to be that these are hard-court events that take place long after (rather than before, and as a warm-up to) the hard-court Australian Open. After the Aussie major, the players drift off to play a variety of events on clay as well as indoor hard courts, and then re-convene for the two big U.S. tournaments before they depart for Europe.

The underlying suggestion of the critics is that hard courts ought to be reserved for the Australian portion of the tour (which is pretty much done by the first week in February) and the summer with its long run-up to the U.S. Open. And there's always been an element that wants to see Indian Wells and Miami go to clay, a move that would especially make sense for Miami, given that it's often been called "The South American Grand Slam" because of the degree of support it gets from players and fans from Latin America. And if we were to succeed in creating a flourishing South American post-Australian Open tour (something Buchholz always dreamed of), wouldn't it make sense to have the two U.S. Masters events switch to clay?

There was one other element in the debate: aesthetics. You don't have to be a Europhile (although it helps) to love clay-court tennis. The courts are pretty, organic, and they absorb heat and light in a pleasant way. The maintenance they require is obvious; who doesn't delight in watching the groundsmen sweep and quickly water the court, leaving it a tabula rasa upon which all things once again seem possible—even for the poor schmoe who's down two-sets-to-none and 2-5?

But that grand vision of a growing clay-court tradition grows dimmer by the day, as does the viability of clay as a surface for future tournaments. Hard courts are slowly but surely establishing themselves as the surface of choice for the ATP, and that's unlikely to change even if the string of tournaments I like to call the "Roland Garros Series," and that small grass-court segment built around Wimbledon, remain healthy and continue to flourish. If we ever do have a viable South American circuit in the late winter, the tournaments could very well be played on hard courts.

In fact, Buchholz and his partners in the Buenos Aires tournaments recently petitioned the ATP to allow the tournament to move from clay to hard, but were denied. There's a pretty strong clay-court lobby within the ATP, which is not surprising. What is unexpected, though, is that Buchholz wanted to change surfaces in order to make BA attractive to players from...South America.

"We felt that if we went to hard courts, we might change the entire spectrum of the players we get," Buchholz told me. "We could go after an Andy Roddick, that's obvious. But we could also go after a Juan Martin del Potro and a Fernando Gonazlez, because those guys prefer to play on hard courts. David Nalbandian, he prefers the clay, but the fields at those South American events have become weak because nobody wants to play on clay. While we were down in Argentina, doing our best to make BA a success, Delpo was playing on indoor hard, up in Memphis."

Furthermore, Buchholz said, Acapulco and Santiago also would like to go to hard courts. He wasn't certain about Brazil's Costa de Sauipe event.

I don't know, and I didn't think to ask Butch, if Delpo's indifference to playing on clay is South American in February is due to the fact that the two big American Masters events are played on hard courts. I don't believe that's the case, though; both Delpo and Gonzalez, that other big South American star, have put up their best results on hard courts.

Given the trends in player development and training, it's also likely that prospects from nations where clay is the traditional surface will still have a preference for, and greater proficiency on, hard courts. In this regard, Rafael Nadal in an interesting anomaly—almost a throwback.That creature we always thought of as the "clay-court specialist" is soon going to be as rare as the serve-and-volley player, and it's all because of influence hard courts have had on the way the game is played.

This gradual and seemingly inevitable rise of hard courts must be dismaying to some. After all, grass and clay are powerfully attractive to traditionalists, sentimentalists, and anyone else who appreciates the quaint and, well, anti-modern. But give hard courts their due. They may seem a threat to clay, but there's a reason they've already killed one entire segment that once flourished, indoor carpet. Wasn't it just a few years (alright, two decades) ago that John McEnroe was calling for a fifth Grand Slam, to be played on indoor carpet, to adequately balance out stylistic mix represented by the majors?

Very quietly, hard courts have been eating up the ATP Tour. "Indoor hard" was once an oxymoron, now the tour is flush with tournaments and Davis Cup ties played on that surface. That's because various technologies have made it possible to build and transport hard courts in a way that, at the dawn of the Open era, was unthinkable. And technology has also enabled court designers to create hard courts that are less punishing on the joints and muscles than was the typical, universal hard court of yore—truly "hard" slabs of asphalt of cement, permanently installed outdoors like parking lots, with lines painted on them. That's not today's hard court.

The term "hard court" is now a catch-all phrase for an entire class of courts covering almost the entire spectrum of surface speed and height-of-bounce. These days, you can make a hard court simulate if not exactly duplicate a clay or grass court. You can fine tune-it to play almost any way you want, and only a hard court enables you to create a truly style-neutral surface, one that equally rewards offense and defense, power and consistency—or favors whichever one you prefer to emphasize.

In fact, the only thing preventing hard courts in some form or other from utterly dominating the tour is the force of history and tradition. Which is why Buchholz says, "Clay court in Latin America is a tradition—it's like grass in England, or Australia. But the on-the-ground reality is that everyone is slowly going to hard courts. They're so versatile now, and that cost of maintenance issue is becoming more and more important. Clay will never go away entirely, but hard courts are slowly becoming the universal surface."

And hey, maybe that's not as bad a thing as we once imagined.

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