Commentary

Madrid's blues more than just clay

Originally Published: May 10, 2012
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

There has been great excitement about holding the Olympic tennis event at Wimbledon ever since London was announced as the host of the 2012 Games. The choice seems apt. The most venerable locale in tennis for the most venerable event in sports. With just a three-week turnaround between the Championships and the Games, the grounds crew has been busy practicing getting the grass courts ready. Accommodations have been made for the strange sight of colored clothing and background signage on what is usually a pristine Centre Court. And there will be a ready-made Grand Slam feel for the Olympic event that many players now see as one of the most important prizes in their sport.

In short, it promises to be a summer to remember on the lawns of Wimbledon. But for tournaments in two cities that finished behind London, however, the experience has been hard to forget. Madrid and Paris are still picking up the pieces from their unsuccessful bids for the Games, seeing their grand upgrade plans run into difficulties as Olympic fever and funding have faded.

In Madrid, the controversial decision to hold this year's ATP Tour event on blue clay has kept up the tournament's history of bucking tradition to set itself apart from rank-and-file tour events. That is a reflection of its owner, Ion Tiriac, a former player-turned-billionaire businessman with ambitions as hefty as his mustache. Though the Grand Slam club is generally seen as a closed shop, Tiriac has openly declared that he wants his Masters 1000 event to rival the four majors in stature.

[+] EnlargeGael Monfils
Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesMadrid failed in its bid to host the Olympic Games and now the tournament comes under scrutiny for its frivolous spending.

For the past decade, he has worked toward that goal, an effort that has turned a once-struggling men's indoor event in the fall into a high-profile combined event that is now entrenched into the heart of the tennis season. The city of Madrid climbed on board, originally hoping to boost its chances of attracting the Olympics, but has found itself on a wild and sometimes bumpy ride as the economy has gone south and the Olympics have gone elsewhere.

In 2002, when Madrid was still in the process of beating out Spanish rivals for the right to bid for the Games, the city helped fund the tournament's move from Stuttgart to add to its portfolio of sporting events. With Tiriac at the helm, the event was transplanted in just over eight months and, fueled by the rise of Rafael Nadal and Madrid locals Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco, it has enjoyed considerable success.

The next phase: Secure a field and a facility to rival that of the Grand Slams.

"In five years I turned Madrid into one of the greatest social events there is in Europe," Tiriac told Deutsche Presse-Agentur in 2007. "I see for the future, with all due respect for Grand Slams, that you have to have the chance to compete. In prizes, in quality, in infrastructure. Everything."

In prize money, he was more than ready to compete. "I just want the right to become bigger. I want to put as much prize money into the players pockets as I can even if that, per capita, exceeds a Slam. And I want the right to have a best-of-five set final which, at the moment, is not allowed on the ATP Tour," he told Tennis Week in the following year.

Quality meant getting all the top players and not expanding to a 128-player draw like the Grand Slams. "I had enough years of communism to last a life time, so I am not trying to guarantee everyone a job," he said. With some political maneuvering, the tournament secured itself a spot during the spring clay season, replacing another German city -- Hamburg this time -- and added a top-tier women's event, mandating the attendance of the top players on both tours.

As for the facility, the plan was not just to match, but outstrip the majors. In 2009, the first year of the combined Mutua Madrid Open, the tournament debuted the Caja Magica ("Magic Box"), hailed as a modern architectural marvel "made entirely of metal, wood and glass," boasting three stadiums with retractable roofs -- "a luxury none of the four major tournaments can offer," noted the tournament description.

The Caja Magica gave the event a modern, industrial feel very different from most tennis venues. Though it matched the tournament's ambitions, the city of Madrid has not found it such an ideal fit. After committing to the project in hot pursuit of the Olympics, the city council was left to manage a huge facility that faced a string of financial challenges, chronicled in detail by the local press. Expected to cost 120-to-150 million euros, it came in closer to 300 million thanks to miscalculations about the soil and the cost of the retractable roofs.

Even without the Olympics, there were still plans to put the venue to use. In addition to the two weeks taken up by the Madrid Open, it was expected to provide a home for the Real Madrid basketball team, various programs run by the Madrid tennis federation, public tennis and swimming facilities and various concerts during the year. But it attracted relatively few concerts, the public facilities were criticized as expensive and the sporting institutions soon moved out. The basketball team left one year into a five-year contract worth 1.1 million euros annually. Problems cited were a temperamental air-conditioning system, the stadium's distance from public transport and thefts from spectators' cars parked in the middle of the relatively poor neighborhood.

The Madrid tennis federation was the next to exit, with the city council claiming 200,000 euros in unpaid fees when the two parted ways this past February. An anonymous source told the website El Confidencial that the federation could neither fully use nor cover the cost of the building and 17 hectare grounds: "There are expenses we cannot assume in full. Do you know the windows and toilets we must clean and maintain?" In a syndicated version of the story (but not the one appearing on the original website), the extra cost of blue clay was also cited as a factor: "Now they want to put blue clay because Ion Tiriac says so. For 15 days, they would pay for the blue clay, but the other 350 days it would be us."

The exact status of that comment is unclear, but the bleaching and dyeing process required to make red clay into blue does make the final product more expensive, with Tiriac cited elsewhere as saying the cost is approximately double. The surface color has so far been approved only for this year, but the tournament hopes to make it permanent. When the idea was first floated in 2009, tournament organizers said it was to better match with the colors of their main sponsor, but the more recent justification is that blue provides better visibility for players and viewers. (Why not just change the color of the balls?)

The reaction from players has been mixed, with Rafael Nadal the leading critic. In addition to his long-standing complaints about the effects of the city's altitude and the slipperiness of the temporary clay surface laid down for the tournament, the Spaniard now has another. "The main thing for me is that on the back wall the signage is too low and the same color as the court," he said. "You lose a lot of the sight of the ball when your opponent hits it at that height."

So much for better visibility. It all recalls the tournament's most infamous publicity stunt: bringing in models to serve as ball girls during evening matches starting in 2004 (extended to male models as ball boys when women's matches came to town). Though it generated plenty of initial buzz, the impact has since faded, but the extra cost and effort remain. If it becomes an annual event, blue clay is likely to suffer a similar fate, particularly with the number of blue hard-court events already on the calendar.

As for the Caja Magica, its lasting value remains to be seen, though there has been some progress after the initial setbacks. A deal was made earlier this year with the Formula 1 team HRT to locate its headquarters there, and the city hopes to increase its annual income from the facility to just over 5 million euros this year. Talk of a fifth Slam, however, does seem to have cooled from all quarters.

In Paris, meanwhile, smaller-than-ideal facilities have become a challenge. Though the French Open already has Grand Slam status, officials keenly felt the threat of the fifth Slam talk coming from Madrid, and after looking around at their cramped 8-hectare grounds, felt an increasing urgency to expand. If only Paris had won the Olympics, it would all have been easy. Included in the bid was a plan to build more courts in the Bois de Boulonge, the city's most well-known park, which is located next to the French Open grounds. But without the lure of the Olympics, neighborhood residents and the Paris city council resumed their opposition to the expansion plans, forcing the tournament to come up with a more modest proposal that involved building a second stadium a short walk from the grounds. When even that faced resistance, tournament organizers began threatening to move out of Paris altogether. Three other sites were considered, including historic Versailles and near EuroDisney, but concessions from the city and the lower price tag of staying -- $370 million, about half the estimated average for building a new facility -- resulted in a decision to remain in Paris. Under the four-year plan, the current site will extend through the neighboring botanical gardens and into a former rugby stadium, growing to a little under 14 hectares. The disruption of the historic botanical gardens has been the most controversial aspect of the expansion and still faces opposition, but approval of the plan is in place and includes a stadium with a retractable roof.

Like tennis tournaments, there can only be one winner in the Olympic bidding process. Unlike tennis, however, tournaments do not come along every week, and as Madrid and Paris are finding, those who miss out can be left to rue their dashed plans for long periods to come.