The Racquet Scientist: Blue Clay Revisited
We're in the midst of another "this is tennis" moment thanks to Ion Tiriac and the blue clay in Madrid, and the players are once again proving that they love the idea of change a lot more than the reality of it. This is hardly surprising, given that the players originally were against many of most significant developments in the game, from larger-headed racquets to the tiebreaker.
Hence, we have objections to the blue clay, like this assertion from Novak Djokovic, delivered during the Monte Carlo tournament, weeks before he even set eyes upon the new color: "Sometimes, change is good. 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."
Um, yes. That's kind of how change works, right? Can anyone else imagine a wonderful and thoughtful athlete like Djokovic saying: "Hey, we're heading into unexplored territory, but that's what change and evolution are all about—whatever happens, at least it will be the same for all of us."
Djokovic's great rival, Rafael Nadal, also weighed in early on, with a point that ventures dangerously close to outright tautology: "The history of the clay court season was on red, it wasn't on blue." He then added, "You can tell me that I am traditional, but I am not. I love all improvements."
All improvements except the most controversial one since the introduction of electronic line-calling technology—which, as we all know, that other iconic figure, Roger Federer, is still trashing. Most recently—and astonishingly—Federer was bemoaning the fact that the challenge system appears to be eliminating controversies of the kind in which John McEnroe once specialized.
Just yesterday, Nadal was reported to have made further complaint about the blue clay, suggesting that, "The court is more slippery than usual, because I do not know if you have too little clay, it's hard underneath it, and [maybe] if you paint it blue its more slippery ... I am not a technician, but I've noticed it. There are times when the court is soft, but that’s a less worrisome problem."
Interestingly, Nadal went on to point out that while the conditions are the same for all, these more slippery courts favor certain players, who happen to be the ones Nadal most fears—big servers like (he provided the names) John Isner, Milos Raonic, and Federer. Don't get me wrong, I admire Rafa for being honest about this beef. But it has to do with the color of the clay only if—and it's a huge and probably irrelevant "If"—the dye used is somehow contributing to the slicker condition. If you've read up on how red and blue clay are made, you already know that dye is used in both processes.
Maria Sharapova, the most recent big star to add her two cents, told reporters: "I find [the blue clay] different and some parts of court have more clay than others. They are trying to work the kinks out. . . I’d like to see more consistency. I think [the blue clay] is a little more for spectators, TV and more for buzz than anything else. I think it’s more for show than for the players."
This also is honest and fair-minded, but the distribution of the clay has nothing to do with its color, and if anything, the blue clay is a stab at consistency as well as a singular experiment: Blue has been universally embraced as the color that provides the best contrast with an optic-yellow tennis ball. Of course, blue clay is supposed to create "buzz." That's not a dirty word in pro sports. And the last time I checked, the lifestyles of Sharapova, Nadal, et al are intimately bound up with and financed by the experience of ticket buyers and television watchers.
None of the big guns have fired a single shot yet on the blue clay, but it's already been a marketing and publicity bonanza for Tiriac and his Madrid event. That's a good thing if, like me, you were disturbed by those oceans of empty seats we saw during early rounds there in year's past.
Tiriac is many things, not all of them good, but nobody ever accused him of being stupid. He thinks big, as in: "Where is it written that all clay courts have to be of red clay?" Green (Har-Tru) clay has a rich history already, but of course that's an American thing. Thankfully, nobody can characterize Tiriac's experiment as some sinister plot hatched by greedy or insufficiently-civilized Americans—not any more than he accuses tennis players of being a flexible and open-minded bunch ready to roll with the punches of the game's evolution.
I bet that by the end of the Madrid event, people will be saying the same of blue clay as they said of the optic-yellow ball, the tiebreaker, and electronic line-calling: Hey, this is pretty cool. I have a funny feeling the singles winners will echo that sentiment.