Got Those Old Madrid Blues

Wednesday, May 02, 2012 /by

By now you know what the color of tennis is going to be next week. The crazy blue clay of Madrid is the talk of both tours as they converge on the city for the first mandatory French Open tune-up event. We’ve had shock, we've had awe, we’ve had complaints, we’ve had reassurances, we’ve had articles, we’ve had opinions, we’ve had discussions, and now we’re starting to get player’s on-the-spot reactions as they finally take to the blue stuff for practice.

We won’t know the wisdom or folly of this decision by Madrid tournament director Ion Tiriac until the event is done and blue-dusted. But let’s take a moment to summarize what we do know so far with a quick FAQ.

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Who the heck does Ion Tiriac think he is?
He thinks he can do anything. He was an obscure Transylvanian who became his country's first billionaire. He was an Olympic hockey player who made himself into a tennis pro afterward—“the best player in the world who doesn’t know how to play tennis,” as Tiriac described himself. He has eaten glass as a party trick. He once walked out of an ATP meeting after singling out every person in the room and calling him a moron. He ran a tournament in Stuttgart when tennis was big in Germany, then moved it to Madrid when tennis got big there. He upended the traditional clay season by moving the event again, from October to May, and building a state of the art, three-retractable-roof facility from scratch. Of course Tiriac can make the clay blue.

The idea has been around for a couple of years. I had assumed it was a sponsor-inspired stunt, but Tiriac told the New York Times’s Chris Clarey, in this informative background piece today, that it will help players see the ball better by 22 percent and viewers see it better by 27 percent. How the Vampyric One arrived at those numbers I have no idea. But it is true that, at certain times of day during these European tournaments, it can be hard for TV viewers to see the ball on red clay.

How is it made?
Check out the short video clip on the subject above. The tournament enlists a curator of Roland Garros's hallowed crushed brick to reassure everyone that this is exactly the same dirt he uses.

Is there a precedent for this?
Of course, not all clay is red. Har-Tru, which is sometimes called green clay but is actually closer to gray, has been in tournament use for decades in the States and was even the surface of the U.S. Open from 1975 to ’77. The U.S. Open and Aussie Open have each switched their hard courts from green to blue in the last decade. And as Clarey points out, other sports have been going blue recently for increased visibility. The track at the last two world outdoor athletic championships was blue, and even the field hockey competition at this year’s Olympics will be on blue turf. Players and viewers can both see the ball better, according to hockey officials. But Tiriac knows there are limits, even for him. “I don’t expect Wimbledon to change to blue grass,” he says humbly.

What do the players think?
Initial reaction was, unsurprisingly, skeptical.

Novak Djokovic summed up the consensus when he said that it was a risk to do this so close to the red-clay French Open, because no one—or, at least, “Not me, not Rafa, not Roger”—had ever played on a blue court before.

Serena Williams said the idea was “ridiculous.”

Nadal said that the red-clay season is the red-clay season, and that he wouldn’t play on anything that would hurt his chances in Paris. But even before it went blue, Rafa has had his issues with this tournament. He talked about skipping it three years ago because Madrid is at a higher altitude than Paris. Those concerns did eventually get the ATP to flip the event with Rome, so that it wasn’t the final Roland Garros tune-up.

Sam Stosur came out against it, and said she doesn’t want her clothes turning blue.

Lisa Raymond loves it so far because it tricks her into thinking it’s a hard court.

Federer, with no other choice but to take his chances, recently said that everything about the blue clay better be perfect, or it’s going to be a disaster.

Milos Raonic says the "Smurf court" is slipperier than red, and that the ball bounces lower.

Sorana Cirstea of Romania says she loves it and that’s it’s a big advance for the sport.

Maria Sharapova kept her reaction safely neutral—“It’s unique,” she said after a hit.

Andy Murray cautiously said that it was worth a shot because sometimes it is hard to see the ball on TV from Madrid.

All of which inspired Chicago sportswriter Greg Couch to respond via Twitter this afternoon:

“Lot going on in the world today. Tennis players whining about blue clay. Just shut up. You’re embarrassing yourself, the game.”

That’s one way of looking at it.

Is it a good idea?
I like red clay, the look of it and the game that’s played on it. But I have to say that seeing the blue clay has made me curious. At first glance it looks pretty cool, both aesthetically and as an eye-popping novelty. Tiriac does what he wants, but he’s no dope. TV concerns aside, what’s most important is how it plays and what the players think of the experiment when the tournament's over. It could be great, but as Federer says, if it doesn’t work, it will be a debacle.

Or, as a friend and rival of his would say, “We gonna see.”

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