x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rafael Nadal leads the complaints against blue clay in tennis

The new surface, being used at the Madrid Open, has not proven popular with players, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

Rafael Nadal is unhappy about playing on blue clay.
Rafael Nadal is unhappy about playing on blue clay.

Tennis is not a sport that embraces innovation. Every major change in equipment, apparel and playing surfaces has come against significant opposition.

The latest: blue clay.

Do not bother searching in nature for blue clay. It does not exist. It is made by extracting iron oxide, and other reddish substances, from red clay to make a white brick, which is baked, crushed, filtered and dyed blue.

The new "pista azul" is being used for the first time, at the Madrid Open this week, and one very prominent player is not happy.

"I don't support that. The history of the clay-court season was on red; it wasn't on blue,"Rafael Nadal said last month.

Organisers say the blue surface is no different from the red, but crusty old traditionalists like the 21-year-old Milos Raonic derided it as "Smurf clay", and said the bounce was lower and the surface slippery.

Novak Djokovic, 24, said the ball was harder to pick up. The champion of Madrid's blue clay is Ion Tiriac, a Romanian who was Ilie Nastase's doubles partner and has since become a successful businessman and tennis promoter.

Tiriac is the man who, a few years ago, decided to have fashion models serve as ball girls, at Madrid, and who is getting another generous helping of attention for his blue clay.

"I respect Nadal from A to Z, and I respect his behaviour and his tennis and everything," Tiriac told the New York Times. "But I believe when he's going to see it, he's going to believe it, and I think he's man enough to recognise that."

Well, that has not worked out, but Tiriac certainly will not be deterred. He said a scientific study found that blue clay helps the sport because it makes a yellow ball easier to see both for players and for spectators.

"For the players on the court it's about a 22 per cent improvement," he said. "For the television viewer, it's even more, about 27 per cent."

Proponents note that the US Open and Australian Open are now played on courts painted blue. The past two world athletics championships played out on a blue track. But Nadal is not be convinced.

"I love all improvements but this is a mistake," he said. "The players win nothing. Tennis doesn't win nothing. … Only the owner of the tournament wins."

The marketplace, no doubt, will decide if blue clay survives or thrives. And not all players think it is a ridiculous notion.

Said Venus Williams: "It's a real fashion statement. I wish I'd thought of it myself."

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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