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Thursday, May 17, 2012
Updated: May 18, 8:03 AM ET
Help! I can't see the ball on red clay


Before Ion Tiriac answers to the players at the annual Wimbledon meeting of the ATP rank-and-file about that blue clay he introduced in Madrid, he has to answer to me.

His experiment, troubled though it was, has ruined my enjoyment of the ongoing Rome Masters -- the last high-stakes battle before the French Open.

Watching the Rome tournament Thursday on a fairly new flat-screen television (but one not set up to receive a digital HD image), I was constantly frustrated by a problem I never even knew I had before the blue-clay event in Madrid: I struggled to see the ball -- an effort I assume I had simply lived with in years past because ... because I didn't know any better. There has never been another option to red clay anywhere in Europe.

So there I sat, as Richard Gasquet crafted an upset of Andy Murray, looking for those tell-take puffs of dirt. They look like the dust rose by an errant bullet in a western movie -- each time one of them served or took a bit cut at a groundstroke. I know from readers of my blog that I wasn't alone in noticing how much harder it was to see the ball after the interlude in Madrid.

Over the past week or 10 days, I've been accused of being blood kin to Tiriac (full disclosure: We do both have some Hungarian blood) and also of being on the payroll of the former pro and iconoclastic billionaire who owns the Madrid event.

I am neither. But I am a fan of Tiriac's because he's a realist, and unlike many other tennis promoters, he's walked in a player's shoes -- and then some. I've seen what he has accomplished over more than three decades in tennis.

After a solid career mostly as a doubles player (he won the French Open partnered with that genius Ilie Nastase), Tiriac went on to coach and/or manage a range of spectacularly successful players starting with Nastase and including Guillermo Vilas, Henri LeConte, Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic.

Soon thereafter, he segued to various non-sports businesses, opening Romania's first commercial bank in the post-Iron Curtain era. He scored success after success. He also built and still supports a large orphanage in his industrial hometown of Brasov.

And all the while, Tiriac has kept a hand in tennis as a promoter, with events in Stuttgart and Madrid. The idea circulating among newbies and ill-educated fans is that he's just some other billionaire dabbling in tennis. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We all know that the blue clay in Madrid was problematic; the foundation was too hard; the top dressing too slippery. Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, and Rafael Nadal, both upset victims, were particularly vocal in their criticism.

The problem was originally ascribed to the fact that the tournament must lay down new courts each year in the Caja Magica ("magic box") arena. And in the aftermath of the blue-clay controversy, the city of Madrid agreed to leave the courts in place in the arena and to maintain them until the next tournament.

But just Wednesday, former French Open champ and Madrid assistant tournament director Carlos Moya also declared that the main problem with the "slippery" courts was the ill-advised addition of salt to clay, which created a kind of super-hard shell on the individual granules. Moya insisted that those who played on the courts before they were treated with salt (a common practice to control the effects of humidity) all judged the court just fine.

Djokovic and Nadal are threatening to boycott next year's event if it remains on blue clay. Just how much support they'll be able to muster among their fellow pros remains to be seen. But to me the cat is out of the bag: The blue courts were a big hit with media and spectators, and the question now will be whether the players embrace innovation and change or choose to play it conservatively.

Granted, I don't have to play on the blue stuff. But the experiment could hardly be called a disaster. Roger Federer didn't seemed to have trouble adapting to the conditions nor did his quality opponent, Tomas Berdych.

The visibility of the ball was clearly better against the blue background. Watching tennis on the tawny clay in Rome makes the case better than do these words. And at least to this fan, the blue was a great respite from the sameness that has come to define the European spring swing. Perhaps three Masters events in just five weeks is a bit much, even for Europhiles?

Tiriac broke new ground with the blue clay, which is unsurprising if you know the man and the way he thinks. I think it would be shortsighted and a wasted opportunity if the players end up rejecting this innovation merely because it displeased Rafa and Nole. This experiment was a great first step toward a better clay-court spectating and, I hope, playing experience.