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Friday, May 4, 2012
Forget tradition, it's OK to feel blue


Samantha Stosur is worried that her clothes will turn blue, and if that happens to your tennis whites, can full-fledged Smurf-hood be far behind? Maria Sharapova said, through tight lips, "It's unique." Milos Raonic claims the ball bounces lower and the surface is more slippery, but maybe that's just wishful thinking. He is, after all, an aggressive, attacking player.

And Rafael Nadal, who's been nothing if not an absolute rock when it comes to clay-court tennis, is worried it might "destabilize" his game.

Sheesh. You'd think that, not even midway through the clay-court season, the ATP and WTA tours had decided to jettison clay and install a blue surface composed of, oh, rhino dung or recycled plastic water bottles. All they've done, though, is use a dye of a different color (blue) to add a new hues to courts that have thus far come in only two colors: a pretty ugly rust (red clay) and a somewhat faster gray-green officially known as Har-Tru and used with any frequency only in North America.

Actually, the "they" in this case isn't even the tours, but Ion Tiriac, the iconoclastic up-from-nothing Romanian billionaire who, back in his playing days, was a notorious gamesman. He went on to become a notorious, inventive tournament promoter who has come pretty close to turning his big Madrid combined event into something like a fifth Grand Slam.

All you need to know about Tiriac is that he's the kind of free thinker who is in the habit of posing difficult questions to the establishment, such as "Where is it written that there should be only the four Grand Slam tournaments we now have?"

More pertinently, some time in the not-too-distant past he apparently asked, "Where is it written that the entire European clay-court circuit should be played on red clay?"

It's a great question, if for no other reason than that the weight of tradition. Actually, it's more like mere familiarity. Even Wimbledon began painting its own tawny courts green in late stages, and the typical hard courts used at the Australian and U.S. Opens, once a boring pea green, underwent various experiments and finally embraced a predominantly blue scheme.

Blue. There's that color again.

Tiriac always has had a great talent for PR and marketing. Who can forget that he invented the idea (at Madrid) of using high-fashion models as ball girls? The debate over the blue clay that now lays ready on the floor of Madrid's spectacular Caja Magica ("Magic Box") arena already has brought Tiriac's event an avalanche of press -- and the tournament hasn't even started.

But this change to blue courts isn't entirely about marketing and media. The lords of tennis have embraced blue as the best color for tennis courts because of the excellent contrast they produce when optic yellow balls are played. (Why do you think the U.S. and Australian have gone to the color?) Tiriac just connected the dots and reasoned -- understandably -- that if it works for them, it could work for him. If it makes for a better viewing experience on hard courts, why not on clay?

The maverick promoter even commissioned a fancy scientific outfit called the Technological Institute of Optic Colour and Professional Image (AIDO) to study the contrast issue, and the agency determined that spectators courtside as well as watching on LCD and LED television screens had a "higher" and "more favorable" contrast with blue clay.

But even those explanations were not good enough for Nadal, who reacted to the experiment as if red clay were something like his personal equivalent of Samson's long hair.

"I don't support that," Nadal grumbled at the Monte Carlo Open. "The history of the clay-court season was on red; it wasn't on blue."

Well, the same tournaments once used a white ball. The history of the U.S. Open was on grass, not hard courts. Not so long ago, there was no such thing as a tiebreaker. Change happens -- although it doesn't happen all that much in tennis, which in one of Mr. Tiriac's consistent mantras.

On this one, I think he's right on the mark. Out with the old and in with the blue!