Those brash, blue clay courts at the Madrid Open have the players seeing red.
"Not a single player -- not woman, not man -- I didn't hear anyone say 'I like blue clay,'" Novak Djokovic fumed Tuesday.
Ask tour officials and tournament organizers and they say blue clay is nothing if not innovative. Ask the players and they say blue clay is anything but aces.
Rafael Nadal, Spain's renowned King of Clay, finds the smurfish surface too soft.
Milos Raonic, the gangly Canadian, calls it slippery, as does former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who rolled an ankle in her opening match at Caja Magica.
Maria Sharapova, ever tactful, concedes only that blue clay is "unique."
Serena Williams said she could care less, other than it seems not to soil her skirts like red.
Venus Williams wasn't around long enough to chime in.
Playing tennis on blue clay is the supposed brainchild of Romanian billionaire (and Madrid Open owner) Ion Tiriac, a former pro player who maintains the stark contrast between the blue surface and yellow ball benefits both spectators watching from sun-baked stands and viewers watching on television.
Tiriac's supporters subscribe to the optics of the Technical Institute of Optical Colour and Professional Image, which suggests the naked eye favours pulverized blue clay over the traditional red used in other tournaments.
"All we are doing is making it easier for fans at the venue and those watching on television to follow the game," Madrid Open director Manolo Santana said.
More than helping to distinguish the ball on the court, the tremendous buzz created by the controversy over blue clay is helping to distinguish the tournament on the schedule.
"From this point onwards, the whole world will know that the blue clay court is exclusive to Madrid," Santana enthused.
That blue is the signature shade of tournament sponsor Mutua Madrilena is purely coincidental. Or so we're told. Yet players remain skeptical and Nadal, for one, is opposed to what he perceives to be unnecessary change to high-stake Masters Series events like Madrid.
"My criticism is not directed at the tournament but at the ATP [Tour], which should never have allowed such a change at a tournament of this scale," he said.
Djokovic, who defeated Nadal 7-5, 6-4 in last year's men's final, shares his rival's irritation over Madrid's desire to turn blue and considers the lack of consultation egregious.
"Disappointing from a player's standpoint is that this is decided without players agreeing on it," Djokovic said. "If you don't have, especially, top players testing the court and agreeing for this change, that should mean something."
Tour officials countered with a written reminder that 'the ATP granted this permission [for change] for one year with the understanding that it will be reviewed following the event -- of course, taking into account feedback from players. We believe it is a good thing that our tournaments are trying to be innovative."
'It's just 100 per cent different'
One rumour making the rounds is the ball is behaving differently on blue clay because the brick is stripped of the iron oxide responsible for the reddish hue before it is crushed and dyed blue. True or false, fact or fiction, whether it improves visibility is not the issue so much as whether it impacts performance -- or better still, whether the players believe it does.
Victoria Azarenka who, like Djokovic, is ranked No. 1 in the world, claims "the bounce is different, the movement is different ... it's just 100 per cent different."
As much as innovation is encouraged and, in some instances, welcomed, if the chemical composition of blue clay alters the way the game is played -- even slightly -- it stands to reason that the players should be approached for input at the outset, not asked for feedback after the fact.
"When you slide on the red clay, you have a feeling you can stop and recover from that step," Djokovic explained. 'But here, whatever you do, you are always slipping.
"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."
With files from The Associated Press
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