Evolution happens with revolution. This is something that is true for all walks of life; sport is no exception. If not for the introduction of limited overs cricket, the T20 rage would have been non-existent. If not for the change of racquet technology, tennis would be a lot less associated with power. However, there have been some terrible attempts at ‘change’ that haven’t augured well for sports. And then there are things that are debated about – whether to completely deploy UDRS in cricket? Are pink ball day/night Tests the savior for the 5-day format? Is the hawk-eye always correct in tennis? Is it good to bring in goal-line technology in football? Amidst these prominent game-changing questions, there also lie questions of less prominence and one among them is ‘Is the choice of going ‘blue’ at the clay surface in Madrid the right one?’; and as is the case with all debates, there are views and counter-views here too. Here’s an analysis over what is causing a hue and cry around the Masters’ tournament at the Spanish capital.
Why blue clay?
The owner/promoter of the tournament Ion Tiriac is a change-seeker. He introduced models as replacements for ball-kids, the Caja Magica is one of the highest-altitude clay courts around, and if those distinctions were not enough, he has given a makeover to the courts this year using blue-coated clay instead of the regular red. This $10 million investment, according to him, is to ensure better visibility of the ball for players and on TV without affecting the game play in any manner whatsoever.
Why are there naysayers?
There are people, among them players from the tour, who aren’t exactly pleased with the color-change game being played. Some feel that the change will have an effect on the way the court plays and hence would force players to employ different playing tactics compared to the way they play other clay court tournaments, thereby defeating the very purpose of providing them with a practice event ahead of the French Open.
There are some others who feel that the change has more to do with promoting the title sponsors of the event (whose logo happens to be in blue!) than to do with the ‘pleasant viewership’ reasons being offered.
Why are some players not comfortable with it?
With everybody’s opinion being broadcast on social media these days, the misgivings of some players regarding their playing experience on the surface have come to light. Milos Raonic, the Canadian No.1 tweeted: “Hitting on the Smurf clay, the bounce is lower and the 2 courts I practiced on were a bit more slippery than usual”.
The views of World No.1 Novak Djokovic aren’t very different either. He feels it is going to be interesting to play on a surface that no one has ever played on. He was frank in saying that the opinions of the players were not taken in this regard. He stated, “I understand that we all want to see a certain change and improvement in our tennis world. But on the other hand you need to hear out what the players say, especially the top ones, because we need to feel that our opinion matters. That was not the case this time.”
Rafael Nadal has been as fierce with his remarks about this as he is while annihilating his opponents. He feels that the high altitude at Madrid in itself makes it different from the rest of the events such as the ones in Rome and Paris and the choice of experimenting with the surface is only adding fuel to the fire. “I (do) not agree, sure. I don’t support that. I don’t support that for different reasons,” he said. The second reason he cited was that the tournament was already popular and he couldn’t see why any popularity-enhancing exercise had to be resorted to.
Britain’s Andy Murray was more guarded when he said that a few weeks before the French Open, one expects to play on a surface similar to it. Roger Federer voiced his concern for nemesis Rafael Nadal when he said it must be difficult for Rafa to voice criticism about playing on a surface against his choice in his own country!
Why are some players OK with it?
Some players see this the way they looked at the use of Hawk-eye technology. They see it as a small contribution towards ‘progress’. Sorana Cristea, the WTA star tweeted “I’m pro blue clay. It’s a big step forward, an improvement in our sport, a way to grow and push our boundaries to progress!”
Maria Sharapova, coming fresh off the heels of her Stuttgart title, also voiced a similar opinion.
“It’s all about being unique and different. I think that for the show and the excitement of the tournament. It’s very nice,” is what she had to say.
Despite the views and counter-views, one thing is for sure. The Madrid Masters will kick off this Monday and the world will see players fighting it out on a blue surface – only this time it won’t be a hard-deco turf but dirt! We can only hope that the surface doesn’t behave so differently that the players struggle to adapt to it. After all, no ‘different’ color can ensure pleasant viewing if it is accompanied by the unpleasant sight of a player falling or twisting his or her ankle.