The world's best tennis players are considering a dramatic boycott after reacting furiously to the introduction of a revolutionary bright blue surface intended to boost interest in clay court tournaments. The world's No.1- and 2–ranked men, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, have led the criticism of the new courts, which will debut at this week's Mutua Madrid Open. Big-serving Ivo Karlovic likened them to "something a Smurf would play on."
Former Tour player Mark Petchey, now commentating for Britain's Sky Sports, said several stars would pull out of next year's event unless the organizers switch back to red clay.
"I know the surface is getting the tournament talked about," Petchey told the Daily Telegraph. "The top men … have not come on board. If [tournament director] Ion Tiriac carries on down this path next year, he can expect some high-profile absentees."
The blue base was the master plan of Tiriac, a Romanian billionaire and professional player during the 1970s, and it was approved by ATP World Tour officials without asking the opinions of any players. It is intended to provide a more striking visual spectacle and make it easier for fans to see the ball, compared to the traditional deep red clay surface so familiar to tennis lovers and used at events such as the upcoming French Open.
However, the outcry from the players has been almost universally negative with the blue courts, which are made of the same crushed brick as normal clay but treated to remove the iron oxide that provides the typical orange hue. The brick is dyed blue, and apparently something in the process causes different spin and bounce than usual.
"My criticism is not directed at the tournament but at the ATP, which should never had allowed such a change at a tournament of this scale," said Nadal, arguably the greatest clay court player in tennis history. Nadal turned traditionalist to back up his argument, insisting that the usual shade of red clay was more in tune with "the color of the earth" and should be retained.
"The only thing that is a little bit disappointing from a player's standpoint is that this is decided without players agreeing on it," Djokovic said. "If you don't have, especially, the top players testing the court and agreeing for this change, that should mean something. 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."
While the event does carry vital ranking points and is one of nine Masters Series tournaments second only in importance to the Grand Slams, it is also used as a valuable warm-up for the French Open at Roland Garros, which begins May 27.
Nadal is a six-time champion in Paris, where Djokovic will seek to end that dominance and take his own recent run in Grand Slams to five titles in six events. Any interference with their precise preparations has naturally gotten the sport's leading lights a bit twitchy.
Tennis' brightest stars take an active role in attempting to ensure governance is done in a manner to their liking, and the ATP players' union wields strong influence. However, tennis has been looking at ways to step up interest in tournaments outside of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open for years and is prepared to try new ideas.
"The ATP granted this permission for one year with the understanding that it will be reviewed following the event, of course taking into account feedback from players," read an ATP statement. "We believe it is a good thing that our tournaments are trying to be innovative."
If the player complaints were just about aesthetics, they would have less foundation and blue clay courts might become a fixture on the calendar. If safety becomes an issue, though, then the blue surfaces could disappear in a hurry. Caroline Wozniacki appeared to be the first casualty on Monday, with the women's world No. 6 complaining that the "slippery" court had caused a misstep that led to pain in her ankle during her victory over Ksenia Pervak.
From a fan's perspective, the visual of the yellow ball against a blue court certainly enhances the viewing experience, especially for those less attuned to the intricacies of the game. Enjoy it while you can.
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