Blue Clay Angst is a Sad Moment for Tennis

Counter Factual Time

Imagine the organizers at the Key Biscayne event announcing, “Because we are the last event before the European clay court season starts, we will be changing our tournament from a hard court event to a green clay event as a transition to softer courts.”  Would the same players be up in arms about such a change that were fretting over Madrid’s blue dirt?  My guess is NO!  However, Key Biscayne has been a staple of pro tennis since it began in 1985.  It has been on a hard court for over twenty-five years.  Doesn’t tradition mean anything?  Key Biscayne has far more tradition than does Madrid.  Would there be outrage if such a change was made unilaterally by the tournament owners and sponsors?

No, the players who complained so vociferously about blue clay would welcome Key Biscayne switching to green clay or even blue clay because the softer court would be easier on their joints as well as adding a fourth Masters 1000 event 0n a soft court.  So what gives?

The Rebirth of Tennis Stereotypes

In the late 1980’s it was fashionable to portray tennis players as temperamental, self-absorbed people who lacked perspective.  It took a long time to shed this stereotype.  Andre Agassi’s school, Carlos Moya donating all of his 2004 title earnings in India to tsunami relief, the first Hit for Haiti, the exhibitions for Australian flood relief and for Chile have all recast professional tennis players as some of the most in touch global sports figures.

That is what is so disappointing about the court color controversy.  Rafael Nadal’s foundation and joy at the 2010 Hit for Haiti demonstrate that Rafa is a good guy with perspective.  Novak Djokovic’s 60 Minutes interview this year helped casual fans see what being raised during a civil war means.

These guys generally get it.  Yet, on this issue the hyperbolic criticism became a story with legs.  Each player threatened never to return.  If the blue clay were injuring players at the rate of Australia’s old rebound ace surface, I could see the consternation.  However, as Jon Wertheim pointed out, the conditions at Monte Carlo were not particularly conducive to player safety and no high profile complaints were lodged.  Wertheim also rightly points out that the worst clay court is easier on a player’s body than the best hard court (emphasis added).

I think a player is within his rights to say that he does not like a particular change.  However, to become apoplectic over a change of this nature sends the wrong message to fans.  Many of us are working hard to earn a decent living.  To hear players who are multimillionaires complaining about safety issues that are in reality non-issues just knocks a little luster off of two champions with otherwise good public profiles.  I hope to see a return of the ambassadors that Rafa and Nole can be for the sport.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Ben Pronin says:

    Man oh man, well said. I feel like Djokovic was doing a great job in the PR department until he decided that, since Nadal is allowed to complain about everything in sight, he is, too.

    1. Dan Martin says:

      Rafa has been really negative lately. I am not sure why. I do think Federer may end up weathering the storm and despite an obvious decline in aspects of his game reclaim #1 for a few more weeks. Part of being at the top means finding a way to navigate all of the press demands etc. without burning out or burning bridges. Federer may be “too Swiss” as Rafa said in January, but in the long run it may be wise to become more “Swiss” if one wants to avoid burnout.

  2. jane says:

    i feel like you’re beating a dead drum dan. seriously, it’s enough already. that’s my opinion. sheeesh.

    was it rafa who said fed was “too swiss” or was it staks?

    rafa and nole had an opinion – one that was shared by many other players – and they spoke it. you know what? i think that is good!

    this all comes down to favourites.

    1. Ben Pronin says:

      The other plays didn’t threaten to boycott, though. If Novak and Rafa can bitch about it nonstop, then we can bitch about their bitching about it as much as we want, too. It’s only fair. And Djokovic was wrong, no one got injured. It’s not like Federer beat an ailing Berdych. And neither Nadal nor Djokovic were injured during their losses, either, for that matter. They’re just upset that, for once, a court was sped up, and a clay court at that. I get why Nadal doesn’t like that, but it’s not like Djokovic is a bad fast court player. He’s just letting stupid shit get to him that’s distracting him from playing his best tennis.

      1. jane says:

        ben, i won’t disagree with you only insofar as i think nole should’ve said his peace after his first match and then left it at that.

        however, i still maintain that is IS GOOD that rafa and nole don’t just suck up whatever the organizers throw at them. i am not one who sides with business. i’ll stand behind the players, every time. just like roddick, rafa and muzza at the USO, and then the 140 players who met pre-AO to discuss a boycott. it players don’t say things, then they will just go along with the powers that be, the people who pull the strings. MANY players spoke up about the surface at madrid, including roger federer who used words like uncomfortable and slippery to describe the surface.

        good for them i say. if it’s not a good surface, then say so.

  3. jane says:

    by the way, it’s possible fed is injured? i heard that he took pills after the first set of the final? and now he’s not sure if he’s going to play rome. maybe he hurt himself at madrid. that would suck.

    1. Ben Pronin says:

      I think this is age catching up to him, and it’s kind of a shame. I don’t want to take anything away from Roddick, but fatigue played a factor in their Miami match. Federer’s been playing great tennis consistently all year, but his body can’t handle the grind as well as it used to.

      1. jane says:

        well let’s hope it wasn’t the blue clay! 😉 i am sure he’ll be okay.

        i still say – GO NOLE win the FO!!

  4. Ben Pronin says:

    I want Djokovic to win the French. I wouldn’t mind if Federer did, but I feel like he doesn’t care about it this year. Plus I have a lot more faith in Djokovic being able to take down Nadal than Federer.

  5. Dan Martin says:

    Jane, my main point would be that for 20 years the Aussie Open was an injury risk for players on hot days as the Rebound Ace court would grab shoes and mess with ankles. However, in the face of a legitimate injury risk Down Under players did not go to these demonstrative lengths to complain. To say the court has bad bounces or is not a good tune-up for Paris – that I get. To make it out to be a death trap just feeds into ideas that tennis players are spoiled and a little soft. The 6 hour Aussie Open final should have dispelled that idea, but each man is making the tour look less than rigorous in my estimation with the complaints about injury risks.

    To have the top two players in tennis (even if Fed is #2 right now) threatening boycotts when no one got injured and when clay courts are easier on the body than just about any surface (maybe grass is not as hard on the body) just does not make sense. Rafa and Nole can complain all they want, but virtually every word out of Rafa’s mouth this year has had to do with being less than 100% or being annoyed at the ATP and/or ITF. That is fine, it is his right, but it does make him a rather sour ambassador for the sport.

    I hope Nole does not follow his example. Not liking the bounces or court speeds is one thing, but the injury risk claims made it sound like each man was working in a coal mine in terms of workplace safety concerns. The fact is no out of the ordinary injuries occurred. Throw in the fact that some of the conditions in Monte Carlo were not great and yet neither complained about these conditions and it just is a bad week in my estimation for two guys that have done a lot of good for the sport.

  6. jane says:

    did nole or rafa go on and on about injury risks? i don’t think so. from what i recall they were saying they couldn’t “move” so it was hard to play their games. they were saying that they court wasn’t playing like a traditional clay court. usually movement and defence are rather important on clay.

    rafa’s complaining is being blown out of proportion overall. yes, he is outspoken. yes, he asked for some stuff that i personally disagree with (e.g., two year ranking system), but i think his intentions are not bad. he wants players to have long and healthy careers i suspect. that’s good!

    why is a good ambassador only one who shuts up and puts up? i prefer outspoken leaders myself.

    this seems to come down to favourites and personal preferences as far as i can tell from most of what i have read.

    1. Dan Martin says:


      I guess we have to agree to disagree on this. I think as both Europe and the US have economic issues that a sport often viewed as elitist by casual sports fans is not well served to have its two best players complaining in the manner they did. I am sure over the years that most top players have expressed opinions to the powers that be, but to make multiple public statements on this matter seems like the players need pampering. One statement to the effect of “the bounces and footing are not good prep for Paris so I won’t be back” is different than the daily complaints. Boris Becker drew a similar hard line when the Grand Slam Cup was first created (later in his career he did play the Grand Slam Cup), but his reasons were that the prize money seemed obscene. I just thought Nole and Rafa came across as being too incensed over this. That is their right. I don’t think it serves the sport well. I also don’t think that a player such as JMDP keeping his mouth closed during the event means he puts up and shuts up. I just think when dealing with people it can be respectful not to air dirty laundry publicly (or to just do it once).

  7. jane says:

    Hmm, but JMDP didn’t keep his mouth shut. He said in his presser “everyone feels the same as Rafa” and that the conditions there were very “harsh”. He said he was hitting the ball as hard as he could (i.e., so he didn’t have to move as much and risk slipping). He clearly wasn’t happy during the Berdych match either.

    Tiriac apologized about the surface; Moya said there were foundational problems. Even the people who run the event admitted there were problems and that they need to make things better for the players. But they only admitted these things after both Nole and Rafa spoke out.

    It’s a shame, too, that no full transcripts are available for the Madrid pressers because you can bet they were asked pointed questions; I think Tignor implied as much.

    Rafa and Nole are excellent ambassadors of the sport in my opinion. They were correct to point out the problems with the surface, as clearly there were numerous players who complained about it – only the number 1 and 2 were able to really draw attention to it due to their star power.

    But I agree to disagree, Dan.

    1. Dan Martin says:

      I think you make a lot of valid points, and the article is interesting. Will they stick with blue clay next year?

  8. jane says:

    i am not sure Dan – I have been reading different things. this article suggests that tiriac wants to keep it blue but it’s up to the ATP. Apparently the previous ATP pres. signed off on this and it was a split vote on the board.

    Then Simon Reed’s article, which I think is really fair, highlights Fed’s great movement, but it suggests the blue clay is a mistake and ill-timed.

    So there are lots of thoughts and opinions out there. it’ll be interesting to see what they ultimately decide. my thinking is that they do what’s best for the players, though you never know…


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