The Clay-Court Curmudgeon

Friday, May 02, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

We’re about to embark on a month-long celebration of tennis on red clay, so what better time to flex the curmudgeon muscle than now, before all the whoopin’ and hollerin’ begins?

We all know that at its best, tennis on terre battue is a delight to watch, even though it sometimes leaves its leading practitioners hooked up to IV drips and looking like like they’re sweat-stained than covered in dried blood. There’s nothing like clay-court tennis played on a clear, still, sunny day by two players adept at the special skills, including sliding and the practice of a patience unseen since the day of Job, required for success.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always like that, and all the hooey about Paris in the springtime isn’t going to wipe away those lingering images of fans huddled together with their hands wrapped around a steaming café crème, as they watch two unknowns fire tennis balls as fuzzy as kittens at each other in a light drizzle.

But why be a Debbie Downer about all this? Let’s get the pet peeves out of the way so we can settle in, hope for the best, and enjoy watching Rafael Nadal win his next 20 matches to end the Euroclay season—once again—holding the tennis world on his shoulders.

The deuce fifth set at Roland Garros...

...has to go. I freely admit that I’ve had a late-life change of heart on this one, and it’s one of those rare instances where that heart has gotten softer rather than harder. I like tradition, but I also believe it’s insane to force players in this era to continue playing what is usually already a four- or five-hour match until someone gets that extra service break.

Defenders of the practice like to cite tradition, as well as the lore and legend of the game, but it just seems to me a capricious and gratuitous clinging to the past. Apart from all else, if the tiebreaker is good enough to decide sets one through four, why is it not good enough to decide the fifth? Isn’t just as much on the line in a fourth-set tiebreaker for a guy who leads two sets to one as it is in the fifth?

And finally, is a 12-10 fifth-set scoreline really that much more impressive than 7-6 (12-10)? I would contend that an equal if not greater amount of pressure was handled in the latter.

Sliding is not an art form...

...even if it is a useful, common technique with which every player must be conversant. Sliding is purely situational, but many players fall into the habit of sliding left and right because they’re playing passive, labrador-retriever tennis. It isn’t because they are “clay-court specialists” of the highest order. It’s sometimes because they’re lazy sacks of you-know-what and either don’t have or won’t employ the kind of nimble footwork possessed by the great ones.

It helps to think counter-intuitively about sliding on clay. It’s a lot like sliding on ice; if you’re an adult, you don’t really want to do it unless you must. On the other hand, any kid can tell you that it’s impossible to look at a sheet of ice and not want to take run and slide on it. That’s how clay affects some pros.

Whole threads on geek boards have been dedicated to resolving the issue of who has the best, most awesomely slide on clay, and the answer—correctly, I think—is Gael Monfils. On the WTA side, I’ll go with Jelena Jankovic, although I have high hopes for Dominika Cibulkova.

Of course, Monfils has never won Roland Garros, while sliding refusenik Jim Courier carried off the title twice. Too, Monfils is a showman who often seems to prefer hitting the amazing shot to winning the point. That’s alright; who doesn’t love watching the guy fling himself around? But it just underscores that you can’t slide your way to success.

That said, watching the well-executed, obligatory slide—think Nadal, sliding to a drop shot retrieve—is a thing of beauty. Novak Dokovic sliding on hard courts? Not so much. It leaves my wincing in sympathy with his joints.

The best slide I can think of belonged to Emilio Sanchez (brother of Aranxta), who would skim along the clay for 20 feet, chin up and chest thrust forward as if he were the figurehead on a sailing ship.

Rallies of more than a dozen strokes...

...are a terrible bore and, except on the rarest of occasions (think Nadal vs. Djokovic), indicative of nothing more praiseworthy than the fear of taking ownership of a point. Wearing down an opponent is a time-honored enterprise, and the win it produces is worth just as much as one earned with derring-do. But there’s no law saying you have to like it.

I don’t particularly enjoy watching two guys go toe-to-toe in 30-stroke rallies—not unless they’re playing aggressive, bold, positive tennis. When they’re not, it’s like watching a sausage-making machine spit out one link after another for hours on end. "Rally matches" can be amusing for a few minutes (or say a set, max) but having to sit there through a four-hour, five-set rally (and break) fest—especially when it’s on television and outside the sun is shining—makes me want to scream.

(Photo at right by Pedro Mendes, who is shooting for us this week at the Portugal Open.)

The Magic Box...

...is empty as far as I’m concerned. But give Ion Tiriac credit. His Madrid event is the only one of the Euroclay events that has stepped up with a massive building project intended to take his event to another level (other venues still look hastily thrown together, with scaffolding and plastic bucket seats). It’s just too bad that the result was that horrific Caja Magica.

Am I wrong, or was the stadium willfully designed to make sure the television cameras showed nothing but empty seats? The whole “box” concept is minimalist; I get that. But given the choice, I’ll take that mischievous Catalan Antoni Gaudí's excess over this kind of minimalism any day.

It’s possible, I guess, that the planners who commissioned the stadium wanted to come up with something that could eventually be converted into a warehouse when the bottom falls out of Spanish tennis, or a hangar for a fleet of 747 jet planes. As for the spring-like atmosphere, there’s so little greenery that watching Madrid you’d think someone went berserk with the Roundup.

Tiriac is famous for targeting and catering to the corporate set with indoor amenties. I’m assuming that his tournament is a big hit on that front, but it’s a pity that it does so little to get a television viewer stoked for tennis.

The French Open men’s semifinal schedule...

...remains a terrible flaw. I’ve always thought that no argument could ever be made for splitting sessions (day and night) at Roland Garros, but I’d almost be willing to embrace it if the result were a more reasonable semifinal schedule.

As it is, the first men’s semifinal goes off at around noon on the second Friday of the tournament, while the vast majority of spectators (not just the corporate eaters) are en route to or milling around the grounds, chowing down and/or buying branded souvenirs. It’s a terrible insult for Roland Garros semifinalists to have to play in a nearly empty, noisy, atmosphere-free stadium.

So here is my solution: Move one semifinal to the second stadium, Court Suzanne Lenglen, even if it means the two matches overlap. Tournament officials might claim they won’t do that, because making the semis is such an honor that it deserves red carpet treatment. I say “amen” to that, and that’s exactly why I think they ought to move the one semi to Lenglen.

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