Who doesn’t love the vibrant look of the US or Australian Open? The bright yellow of ball contrasting against the vivid blue plexicushion courts.
And who doesn’t love the French Open? The long intense physical battles from the baseline. Displays of courage, endurance and the will to win.
Well, the Madrid Masters has found a way to combine the two by unveiling Blue Clay courts for the 2012 Mutua Madrid Open which begins this week.
According to the tournament website, the decision to go with blue clay was “a break from the past that has not been decided on a whim but is the result of many years of meetings and negotiations with those in charge of the ATP and WTA.”
And while they claim that the surface is an improvement with regards to playability, it’s clear that tournament director is thinking with the media in mind. That man, former professional player and Ilie Nastase’s doubles partner Ion Tiriac, insists however that the pista azul (blue track) is not a publicity stunt but rather a genuine attempt to improve tennis.
I imagine his reasoning was similar with his decision back in 2004 to hire catwalk models as ball girls.
The thing is though, he’s right.
While the immediate quality of tennis may not improve as a direct result of the new blue courts, it does make the game easier to watch on television. As a result more people will tune in and in turn, more will play. The more people picking up a tennis racket, the better it is for the game at all levels. So when Tiriac says he wants to improve tennis, he is.
And tennis is not the only sport adopting the televisually friendly changes. Track and Field Athletics introduced a blue track for the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, and again in the 2011 Championships from South Korea; The 2012 Olympic Field Hockey competition in London this summer will be played on blue astro-turf for the first time; Boise State University’s football program installed the “Smurf Turf” back in 1986; And, lest we forget, both the US and Australian Open’s went from green to blue courts in 2005 and 2008 respectively.
The simple fact is, tennis looks better in blue. However, some of the players on the tour are reticent about the changes. One in particular is perhaps the greatest clay court player of all time, Rafael Nadal, who has been very outspoken about his opposition to the change,
“The history of the clay-court season was on red; it wasn’t on blue.”
Nadal is correct on that matter.
Equally however, the traditional surfaces of the US and Australian Open’s was grass for nearly a century until they changed surfaces in 1974 and 1988 respectively, but I don’t recall Nadal calling for a change back to the old school courts there. I also don’t recall him complaining about the non-traditional attire he himself chose to wear in the early years of his career, or the slowing down of grass courts to better suit the baseline game.
I really don’t think Nadal fears for the destruction of the traditions of the game.
So what is Nadal’s issue?
Perhaps it’s more to do with the fact that Rafael Nadal is perhaps the most dominant clay court player in history, and any changes can only be bad. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And for Rafa, clay court’s certainly ain’t broke.
A similar argument was made by Roger Federer when Hawkeye was introduced into the game back in 2006. At the time, Federer was dominating the game and didn’t want anything to throw a spanner in the works. And yet, fans almost unanimously favor hawkeye technology for improving the quality of officiating, legitimizing tough calls, and bringing the fans into the game when a challenge goes to the big screen. Hawkeye, without question, has been good for the game, and Roger Federer subsequently went on to win nine more Grand Slams, breaking Pete Sampras’ record en route, so it clearly didn’t hurt him.
Tradition is always the argument made by someone who feels they are going to be directly negatively impacted by the result of change, and Nadal admits that in a fashion,
“I love all improvements (but this) is a mistake. The players (don’t) win nothing. Tennis doesn’t win nothing. One person wins. Only the owner of the tournament wins.”
Basically, “I like changes, but not changes that might affect me winning.”
Players who haven’t enjoyed such an hegemony on the terre battue, are more open to the changes. Fernando Verdasco said, “in terms of mobility, I liked it a lot” and Maria Sharapova added “It’s all about being unique and different. I think that for the show and the excitement of the tournament. It’s very nice.”
As far as progress goes, generally technology trumps tradition. If tennis were played in all whites, with wooden rackets and long pants, the game would not be where it is today, and Nadal would not be making the money he does.
However, I don’t know if Wimbledon should be considering a change to Surf Turf.
Although….. it might look pretty cool.