The Mutua Madrileña Madrid Open is one of the biggest clay court warm-up events for both the ATP and WTA on the road to Roland Garros. This week, however, the discussion hasn’t been about which players are looking like the favorites to lift the title in Paris, or even about play in general, but about the clay. The color of the clay. The blue color of the clay.
Even before the color change, the clay of Madrid has always played differently than the terre battue of Roland Garros. The main stadium, the Caja Magica, or The Magic Box, is situated at a significant distance above seas level. As a result, the clay usually plays quicker and tends to be more slippery than other clay courts. Both ATP and WTA players have been critical of the courts since the tournament’s inception.
So why the blue clay?
Tournament owner Ion Tiriac first proposed the idea of blue clay in 2009; he argued that it would be better visually, especially for viewers on television. Critics suggested that the blue color is in homage to the sponsor of the tournament, the insurance giant Mutua Madrileña. Former player Manuel Santana, the current tournament director, had assured that aside from the color, the courts would have the same properties as the traditional red clay.
The clay is made of the same crushed brick as red clay but treated to remove the iron oxide that provides the typical orange color. The brick is then dyed blue, and as a result, the balls take on a different spin and bounce. When the courts were laid, the top layer of clay has little traction against the layers underneath it, providing less than solid footing for the players.
Reception to the clay has been decidedly negative. Caroline Wozniacki, who sustained an ankle injury in her first round match against Ksenia Pervak, said:
“It’s definitely more slippery, but then I also completely stopped at one point – you could say it wouldn’t happen on red clay, but then you never really know, it could be the same. It’s definitely different, but blue is one of my favorite colors, so I do like the look.”
Novak Djokovic slammed the courts, specifically Court Manolo Santana, after his first round win:
“To me that’s not tennis. Either I come out with football shoes or I invite Chuck Norris to advise me how to play on this court. Center court is impossible to move on…”
Djokovic later took to Twitter to continue his complaints.
@DjokerNole: First match on blue clay? Ouch. Next time I better bring my skates with me. So slippery out there.
ATP World #2 Rafael Nadal has been extremely critical of the decision since it was announced.
“I think it’s a mistake — not by the organisation but by the ATP…Madrid is one of the best tournaments in the world and does not need this. It is played at altitude. That makes it different already. I appreciate the idea but it should have never been allowed.”
No matter their ranking, players are irate. Ivo Karlovic likened it to “something a Smurf would play on.” Maria Sharapova believes the tournament might not be thinking about the players.
“I’d like to see more consistency. I think [the blue clay] is a little more for spectators, TV and more for buzz than anything else. I think it’s more for show than for the players,” the Russian said.
Other players have been quoted as saying the courts do not play any differently than when they were red – but that is exactly the problem. Gilles Simon called the courts “dangerous” and Stanislas Wawrinka said they are “the worst clay courts” he’s ever played on.
As the media firestorm continues into the middle of the week, World #1 Victoria Azarenka just wants to talk about something else.
“The court is different; it’s obvious, let’s drop it.”
The blue clay has not be the only controversy of the tournament. Attendance has not been close to what was expected, and few matches are actually being broadcast on international television. For example, only two WTA matches were broadcast on the first Monday and Tuesday of the event from Manolo Santana Court. There were four times the amount of ATP matches broadcast from the three main show courts.
Steve Tignor of tennis.com perhaps summed up the reasons for the controversy best:
…Red clay signifies the Old World, and an alternative, century-old Continental tennis tradition. Blue clay, on the other hand, signifies the power of Ion Tiriac’s bank account.
The ATP has released a statement saying that the blue clay had been only approved for this year, and will be evaluated at the end of the tournament to see if it will continue.