What is being humorously referred to as “smurf” clay is debuting at the Madrid Open this week amid a smattering of critiques from players. It will be the first time this tournament has featured the blue-colored clay instead of the more traditional red surface. While it has garnered moderate approval from
Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Maria Sharapova, it has been criticized by world champion Raphael Nadal. Nadal, the 2005 Madrid Open winner and 10 time Grand Slam champion, will no longer be donning the knee brace he has worn since the latest flareup of his recurring tendinitis. He is the local favorite to win the tournament.
Nadal, who is considered by many to be the world’s best clay player, thinks that the sudden switch to blue clay could adversely affect his training for the French Open, as well as the rest of clay court season. He had surprisingly harsh words on the subject, saying that the only person who would benefit from it was the tournament owner, billionaire and former Romanian ATP player Ion Tiriac. Other criticism came from top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who says that the court alters a player’s perception of how the ball will bounce.
Interestingly, though the court material was produced in the exact same way as the red court, at least one player, 23rd ranked Canadian player Milos Raonic, has cited increased slickness and decreased bounce. If this is true, it will factor in to an already changed game pace, accelerated by the thin air of Madrid’s elevated altitude.
The Madrid Open is the only tournament in in Europe that features both men and women. It is played inside the Caja Magica, one of the more astonishing pieces of architecture in sports. The corresponding City of Tennis is Madrid features three indoor/outdoor courts that can seat 20,000 spectators. While no one is quite sure what exactly triggered the push for a clay color change by owner Tiriac, organizers say the new color will allow viewers to better follow the ball. It is certainly a noteworthy addition to the clay court season, though spectators may miss the now customary sight of Raphael Nadal staining his apparel with red clay streaks.