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.