The Racquet Scientist: Blue Clay

by: Peter Bodo | April 28, 2012

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by Pete Bodo

Ion Tiriac has a habit of making traditionalists want to hurl. It goes all the way back to the late 1960s and 70s, when his glowering visage (in a brilliant line, a writer once observed that the man's head looked like something found on Easter Island) and notoriety for gamesmanship made him the closest thing tennis produced to a true pariah.

Tiriac retained that controversial reputation as he brilliantly and ruthlessly parlayed his career as player, coach, and manager into a billion-dollar empire in which tennis now plays just a small part, mostly via the Mutua Madrid Open, the combined Masters 1000 event that Tiriac owns.

Most of you know that Tiriac's latest outrage is converting the traditional red clay courts that will be used in Madrid to a previously unknown—heck, non-existent—blue clay. By contrast, his decision a few years ago to employ high-fashion models as "ballkids" seemed a harmless publicity stunt.

The blue clay is a fait accomplit, but Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are disgruntled and were unafraid to make it known to reporters at the Monte Carlo Masters.

"Sometimes change is good," Djokovic said. "I like innovative and creative people. But, on the other hand, it's going to be the only blue clay-court tournament in the world, first time ever in history. To be honest with you. . .  I never played on blue clay. Rafa didn't. Roger didn't. We're going on there and we're going to play for the first time ever.  We don't even know if it's a natural blue clay because natural clay is a red clay. I'm not really too happy about it."

Legitimate complaint, or talking out of both sides of his mouth?

Nadal had a somewhat simpler—perhaps simplistic—objection. He said, "The history of the clay court season was on red, it wasn't on blue. . ."

Legitimate complaint, or transparently weak argument? The history of the U.S. and Australian Opens were written on grass; green-and-maroon (with white lines) was once the only color combination used for hard courts, and what indoor tennis existed back in the day used wood (as in gym-floor wood) as a surface.

Obviously, change happens. Why shouldn't it happen on clay?

Personally, I'm not enamored of the idea of blue clay. But having just watched Monte Carlo on television just the other week, I can see the beauty of actually being able to see the ball on television—something that's aided by having an HD-based "entertainment center" instead of a mere TV.

This practical and highly germane point hasn't really been conveyed effectively by Tiriac's minions until now, which explains why the Madrid tournament's communication department sent an advisory memo on Thursday, explaining that a study carried out by an outfit called the Technological Institute of Optic Colour and Professional Image (AIDO) conclusively proved that both spectators courtside and those watching at home on LCD and LED television screens had a "higher" and "more favorable" contrast (to spectating, we assume) on blue clay.

I wouldn't put it past Tiriac to have hastily convened this AIDO for his own purposes, but I looked it up and it checks out.

This controversy raises exactly the kind of question a true iconoclast and original thinker like Tiriac has a way of broaching; convention, habit, and tradition be damned. If the ATP tour and the hard-court Grand Slam events have widely embraced blue courts (it wasn't so long ago that the hard courts at the Australian Open and U.S. Open were green instead of the current blue), why shouldn't the red-clay tournaments do the same? 

We'll see how these blue courts work out, but don't mistake this move by Tiriac as some sort of PR stunt. He's exercising his god-given talent as a devil's advocate to shake up our way of thinking with a completely legitimate challenge—yet again. Such fiercely independent minds ought to be given free rein, and at least one top pro is willing to give the devil's advocate the benefit of the doubt.

"For the players, it would be better for it to be on the red clay," Andy Murray. "But at the same time, I've watched sometimes in Madrid. It's very difficult to see the ball. I understand the reasons for doing it."

All we can do is wait, keep an open mind, and see. Still, I have a feeling that no matter how it works out, Wimbledon will not be receptive to the idea of blue grass courts.

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