© Ella Ling

Miami 2012 - Rafa Nadal

How relevant is Madrid to the French Open?

As we guessed it would – and certainly as Ion Tiriac knew it would – the colour of the clay in Madrid has captured almost all of the attention so far this week at the second of the year’s big European clay-court events. Even If it improves visibility for those watching on television, the blue surface is a gimmick and as is the way with most gimmicks, the chances of it lasting are slim, especially as the players don’t like it. If they are to be believed, the ATP World Tour took the decision to go ahead with the change from traditional red to blue without fully consulting them and there is nothing they dislike more than having something foisted upon them.
It was no surprise that Tiriac, who has made his immense fortune by being bold and having the balls to back up his words with actions, should be the one to push the boundaries. Whether it stays or not next year doesn’t really matter. His job is to attract interest in his event and if the blue has to go, he will doubtless come up with something else new to challenge the establishment.
All the discussions about the courts – some of the players asked how many Smurfs had to die to create them – got me wondering about Madrid’s status as a tournament. With Rafael Nadal having dominated clay-court tennis for the past eight years, it makes obvious sense to have a Masters 1000 event on clay in his country. And it’s not just Nadal; Spain boasts a host of top mudlarks and have provided the French Open with many champions in the past two decades, including Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Nadal himself.
But the relationship between Nadal and Madrid has never been particularly friendly. While he loves Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros, if he was forced to admit which clay-court tournament he had to miss, it would surely be Madrid. That doesn’t sit well with organisers, as you might imagine, but it has an awful lot to do with conditions at the tournament, which switched from hard courts to clay, and from October to May in 2009 when Hamburg lost its status.
The big reason Nadal doesn’t like it? Altitude. Madrid sits 650 metres above sea level, so the ball flies through the air that bit faster, changing conditions, in horse racing parlance, from good-to-soft to good-to-firm. It’s now the fastest of the clay-court events, with the serve having that bit more effect than it does elsewhere. Nadal did win there in 2010 but has also lost finals to both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic..“This is a clay-court event that is least like a clay-court event,” he said. “There is always a chance of playing worse here. I only speak my mind for the good of the tour and the players, so that we have a clay tournament with few problems.”
Nadal was not in favour of the switch to blue clay but on the question of altitude, surely he has a point. If the tour wants to build brands in the run-up to a grand slam event – as the Emirates US Open Series tries to do for the US Open – it needs uniformity in terms of surfaces and conditions. What’s the real point playing on clay at altitude if the French Open is at sea level? Altitude training is one thing, but actually playing matches in totally different conditions is hardly an accepted method for professional sportsmen and women.
The other clay-court tournament at altitude, Gstaad, has the excuse that it is a “lesser” event and is after Wimbledon, so only the true clay-court diehards (or those who lost early at Wimbledon and want more matches) usually show up. But Madrid, if it is to remain as important as Rome and Monte Carlo (at least to the players) has a long way to go. When Nadal eventually retires, will it have the same pull it does now?
Martina Hingis was famously named after Martina Navratilova so it was quite amusing when the nine-times Wimbledon champion joined the Twitter world before the Swiss Miss, pinching the “handle” @Martina in the process. Well, no hard feelings it seems, as Hingis has succumbed to the peer pressure and joined up, immediately congratulated by the likes of Billie Jean King. Having sent just one Tweet to say hello on Monday, Hingis is already approaching 3,000 followers, a number which is sure to rise and rise, especially if she ventures into some of the more controversial talking-points on tour, as she did when she was a player. Find her at @mhingis
  • http://twitter.com/SamuelVimes87 Håkon Mørk

    I’m struggling to see why it should be identical. Surely, in order to grow its own brand, it needs to make itself slightly different from the other tournaments? That’s the appeal of the Slams – four tournaments with their own unique history and conditions. The Italian Open, as fine a tournament as it is, seems to be forever doomed to be a side show to the French Open.

    I think the lack of TV coverage, especially on the women’s side, and the lack of live scores are far more damaging to the tournament’s reputation.

    • Agentprovocateur10

       I agree.  Although I am starting to wonder not about the color of the clay but how evenly the layers were laid.  The TV coverage has been hit and miss.  I don’t mind getting up early in NYC but I do mind not having the option to watch different matches, especially seeing that I am watching online anyway.  Speaking of the Internet:
      Madrid must improve its website.  Visually, it appears appealing but it is somewhat of a mess in terms of how the information is aggregated.  Live scores?  Order of Play for the next day?  All of these things should be readily accessible on the site.

  • Sunny nine

    Do all the grass warm-ups for
    Wimbledon play at the same speed? Are all hard courts playing at the
    same before the US Open where you have a hot humid climate like
    Cincinnati but a different climate in Canada? So what is wrong with a
    different speed clay court run-up to RG?