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A future ATP Finals staged on clay—why not?
Now that the emphasis on hard courts has produced more well-rounded performers, it might be nice to watch them battle it out for the ATP's crown jewel on rotating surfaces.
Published Nov 22, 2022
The Break: Roger Federer visits Tokyo
It was hardly shocking that Rafael Nadal, woefully short of match play, lost his first two matches in Turin, Italy, at the recently concluded ATP Finals. But the really surprising element was the way Nadal capitulated, particularly in his opening match against Taylor Fritz.
As a Fritz win began to look inevitable, a dispirited Nadal showed uncharacteristic signs of frustration and even—yikes!—capitulation. He peevishly smacked balls away, took some swipes that looked uncharacteristically half-hearted.
Analyzing the loss for reporters later, Nadal pointed to the role of the quickness of the hard court, which according to fellow competitor Daniil Medvedev, was “the fastest of the year.”
“It's [all] about time,” Nadal commented. “I had less time than him (Fritz) to do what I want to do on the ball. I felt that everything was going so fast. When that's happen[ing], normally you are under stress and you don't have the time to play the kind of shot that you want. . . That's what happened.”
That was the text. But long-time Nadal watchers also know there is a consistent subtext when Nadal plays and holds forth at the official tour championships. It suggests that playing the official tour championships on an indoor, hard court (it has been that way since the first ATP Finals in 1990) does an injustice to players who are more proficient on the second-most common surface, clay.
Nadal once defended and forcefully articulated the idea of hosting the tour finals on different surfaces. In 2015, Nadal told the Daily Mail, “I believe that it’s not fair that a player like me really never played on a surface that was a little bit more favorable. I always played on the worst surface possible for me.”
Nadal no longer bothers making that case. But it’s useful to remember his beef when puzzling over why Nadal, so beloved by so many for his unyielding tenacity, turned in such a lackluster performance in Turin. Or why the ATP Finals remains the only top-level event Nadal—still the all-time Grand Slam men's singles title holder and, in the eyes of many, the GOAT, has never won the ATP’s grand finale. Or why the greatest clay-court player of all time—the “King of Clay”—was never allowed the chance to claim his professional organization's showcase event on the most common tennis surface in Spain—nay, all of Europe.
Nadal has appeared in the ATP Finals 11 times. He’s been discharged before reaching the knockout stage five times now.
This isn’t some pity party for Nadal, and lord knows that Novak Djokovic and others are more than capable of dumping the “King of Clay” off his throne and onto his keyster in the red dirt. But it’s odd that the ATP seem wedded to a strategy that promotes hard court as the “official” surface of tennis, thereby diminishing the value (and, perhaps eventually, the credibility) of the game’s other two common surfaces, grass and clay.
Unlike grass, clay is by no means an exotic, high-maintenance anachronism. This year, the ATP Tour hosted 40 events on hard courts and 21 on clay, with only eight on grass. Clay has an outsized influence in all aspects of the pro game because it dominates a lengthy (two-and-a-half month) season culminating with the second Grand Slam event of the year, the French Open. Three of the nine top-tier ATP (Masters 1000) events are played on clay during that period.
Nadal is no outlier when it comes to great champions, either. Many of the legends in tennis were at their best—and most dangerous—on clay without being one-trick ponies (think Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Steffi Graf and others).
The much-derided “clay-court specialist” was once the bane of fans and pundits, but the species is as extinct as the dodo. Fewer and fewer players demonstrate a special affinity for clay, or bother to develop it. It is somewhat counter-intuitive but Medvedev, a master of defense, often found lingering way back near the fence, is more successful—and comfortable—on hard courts than on clay.
Casper Ruud has all the makings of a dynamo on clay but he leads a youthful European generation focused on hard courts. In Turin, he said of his evolving game: “I'm happy to say things have improved, but there are still many more things I can improve compared to the best hard-court players or hard-court indoor players in the world.”
These details could be framed as a justification for promoting hard-courts even more aggressively, inching us ever closer to a universal surface for a universal style. But they can also be employed to lobby for a red dirt ATP Finals, now that the endless rallies and cat-and-mouse games of clay’s past are no longer viable. The evolution of tennis shows that Nadal is less clay-court specialist than a genius with a unique, supplemental gift for the clay game (remember, Roger Federer has not won every major at least twice, as Nadal has).
Does anyone doubt that the rankings would look similar to what they are now if there were even more clay events?
The hard-court template imposed on the game represents the ATP’s preference for standardization (a uniquely American contribution to society) and profit maximization, a grow-the-game practicality. But it also erodes the variety and vibrancy for which the game has been famous, and appealing to so many. If you scoff at the idea of allowing a greater role for clay, ask yourself if you would like the NFL playoffs more if all the games were all held indoors, on artificial turf.
Nobody is saying these Finals should have been played on clay, and certainly not in order to cater to Nadal. But now that the emphasis on hard courts has made everyone a more well-rounded, versatile performer, it would be nice to watch them strut their stuff for the ATP’s top title on the clay that plays such a large role on the world stage.