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With blue clay, Madrid Open takes ‘no press is bad press’ route

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When it comes to the blue clay in Madrid, there’s one thing we can all agree on: We’re all talking about the blue clay in Madrid. For a tournament without much history, that’s not a bad marketing coup. I’ll get to talking about the actual tennis that’s being played on these courts soon. Until then, here are some initial thoughts after bathing in the sea of blue that was the Caja Majica while sitting on my couch watching Tennis Channel’s early coverage.

Better optics. Is the true, no? Among tournament owner Ion Tiriac’s defenses of blue clay, the one that’s universally convincing is that it offers better viewing for spectators. No doubt that the color contrast between the ball and the court is significantly better with blue as the backdrop. Watching red-clay tournaments on a non-HD television (or even worse, an online feed) can sometimes feel like a futile endeavor, where I pretend like I can totally see the ball when, really, I totally can’t see the ball. So watching matches on Tennis Channel in standard definition was great. You can track the ball as well as you can on a hard court. Which brings me to my next point …

Same same, but different. No, really, it looks like a hard court. For all the talk about the unique nature of the court, the reality is that if you’re not paying attention, Madrid looks like an indoor hard-court tournament. Part of that is because it has been overcast there so we haven’t seen how the clay looks under stronger natural light. According to USA Today, 49 percent of ATP tournaments are played on blue hard courts, meaning the tournament’s quest for individuality actually led to conformity. It’s like hipster culture: If you’re all growing beards, dressing like lumberjacks and riding fixies, are you really all that unique?

It’s cool, and not in a good way. I was at the Caja Majica last year and I found it to be one of the least-inviting venues to watch tennis. Center court is cavernous, the seats are rarely full and the design of the whole venue, from the exposed concrete to the heavy use of stark metals, made it feel cold and alienating. The red clay was the only organic thing about the venue, which actually made it visually striking. Now, watching on television thousands of miles away, the blue clay just exacerbates that empty space-age feeling, especially on center court where the blue clay is surrounded by a lower bowl filled with grey metal chairs and barriers. I half expect to see the Jetsons sitting courtside.

Let’s not vamos. The Madrid Open wants to be different. I understand that and admire the outside-the-box thinking, even if the ideas themselves don’t sit well. But on the heels of tournaments like Monte Carlo and Barcelona, which gave fans visuals of sun-drenched skies and warm red clay, why would you want to give fans whiplash by playing on a surface that looks like AstroTurf? It just screams artificial and manufactured. I rarely watch tournaments on television and think, “I’d rather be here than there.” But the thought quickly crossed my mind before I shamefully whisked it away.

• Tumbling, anyone? The blue clay has been likened to many things: Smurf Village, Cookie Monster, Slurpees and Bronco Stadium (home to Boise State football) come to mind. But all I can see is this. If Tiriac wants to keep this blue clay next year and continue innovating, may I humbly suggest hiring ball kids who can do a triple whipback while shagging balls?

What were your impressions after finally seeing the blue clay in action? Vote in the poll and sound off in the comments. 

  • Published On May 08, 2012
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