With two key warmup events before the French Open remaining, the talk in the tennis world is not about the return of Roger Federer after a relatively extended break. Nor is the conversation centered around the possibility of yet another Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic final. Rather, the topic consuming the sport the last few days is the color blue. More specifically, the blue clay courts used at the Madrid Masters event this week.
Legendary tennis figure and Madrid tournament director Ion Tiriac never lacks for innovative and controversial ideas, such as his use of models as ballgirls during the tournament. And he decided to use blue clay to make the ball more visible for fan and player alike. Of course, the clay isn't naturally blue. It's really the natural red clay that is altered to attain its bluish hue. Iron oxide is extracted from the clay, producing a white clay, which is then dyed before drying. The clay is then heated to more than 900 degrees. Like flour, it is then ground and sifted to a specific grain size.
But early reviews from the players are negative. A sampling:
Djokovic: "The only thing that is a little bit disappointing from a player's standpoint is that this is decided without players agreeing on it. If you don't have, especially, top players testing the court and agreeing for this change, that should mean something. They should have value in what they say. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. The ATP should have done a better job in representing the players' rights. I hope that we don't have injuries and that we can have a decent week of tennis here."
Nadal: "I trained on it, and I think it's a mistake - not by the organization, but by the ATP. You are in the middle of the clay-court season, and the clay here in Europe is red."
Nicholas Almagro, ranked 13th: "Being so close to Roland Garros, we would prefer to play on red clay. This surface isn't in the best of condition. It is very slippery, and I hope there aren't any injuries."
If these three and others are correct that these blue courts bounce lower than regular clay and are more slippery than the standard red dirt the French Open uses, it is further cause for the players - especially the top players - to wrest control from the administrators and corporate entities that dictate the way of things. Indeed, it is an affront to any serious fan to have such an experiment, however well-intentioned, at the peak of the clay-court season. It would have been far more appropriate to test such conditions in an exhibition or minor tournament.
The blue-vs.-red story has sparked talk of traditionalist sentiment and how change-resistant tennis has become. I wholly disagree.
The problem with tennis isn't that it has been uptight and hesitant to embrace change. Far from it. In fact, the opposite is true: Too much change has taken place over the last few decades. From the ridiculous lack of control over the size and shape of rackets to the altering of court surfaces in an effort to favor one style of play, tennis has tinkered far too much with its essence. That is why the opinions of Nadal and Djokovic regarding the blue clay are critical. (Federer was his usual polite, measured and noncommittal self, neither endorsing nor rejecting the surface.)
Furthermore, the bluing of tennis has reached epidemic proportions. With nearly every hard-court event staged with a blue palate, the sport is putting at risk its former rainbow coalition of surfaces and colors - green, red and blue. There is no real need to color red clay blue. Even if blue displays more significant contrast with the yellow ball and thereby enhances tracking of the ball, it is also an uglier color for a backdrop. Green is far more soothing to the eye. It's as if the authorities in tennis are striving for a homogeneity rather than a splendid variety.
And what if a player is injured in Madrid? Clay is usually the least injurious surface. On grass one slips often, and the hard courts are relentlessly punishing on a player's knees. This is the one time of year when players don't usually fear physical harm. But if a player were to injure himself, then maybe, finally, there'd be a sea change in how the sport is governed, with far more power returned to the players. But then again, I thought after the rain-induced fiascos during the 2011 U.S. Open that players would usurp the governing bodies' authority.
Whatever the case, it's a shame that in the midst of another riveting year in the men's game that a gimmick takes precedence over competition.
The only change tennis needs is to return to its former self.