By Matthias Krug
The best tennis players in the world are back in town, but some of them have the blues.
Everything is the same as every year around the time when the city begins to feel the heat of approaching summer. Only this year there is a new surface. Instead of red clay, it is now blue clay. And Fernando Verdasco, the left-hander who is a Madrid native, has just fallen down to kiss the blue specks of sand. They are his lucky charm, it seems.
The surprise of the early rounds has just been wrapped up and presented to the disbelieving public. The Spaniard has beaten none other than Rafael Nadal, in a three set epic struggle: 6-3, 3-6, 7-5. After 13 straight attempts without a single victory against Nadal. And with Nadal serving twice for the match at 5-2 in the third. Classic miracle stuff. And yet in the press conference after the game, the colour of the court takes on a rather controversial importance.
Nadal won’t return to play in Madrid next year if the court does not change back to the original red which clay usually is associated with. What is in a colour? Already, World Number 1 Novak Djokovic had complained after he struggled in his opening day victory, dropping the second set, that he felt as though he were skating on ice.
Then came Roger. The majestic Swiss player is welcomed in Madrid as one of our own. But he too struggled in his first encounter – his first all season on clay indeed. On blue clay too. An epic three set match was won only at the very last moment, in the tie-break of the third. His opponent, the big-serving and highly promising Canadian youngster Raonic, certainly pushed the Swiss legend to the limit.
But what of the blue clay? Was it to blame for the difficulties of the top players? The top women on the circuit equally had to struggle. Ana Ivanovic, the Serbian crowd favourite and former French Open champion, took a promising 4-1 lead in her encounter against World Number One Azarenka, but then lost the next five games and went down in a frustrating double 6-4.
Meanwhile out on court 3, a classic first round encounter took place between the Brazilian Belucci, a major surprise at last year’s tournament in reaching the semifinals, and Richard Gasquet. The Frenchman edged it in three delightfully hard-fought sets, sending a scorching backhand winner across the court to win it in the tie-break. Small details decided the match. Was the new surface among them?
The next match the French player had another interesting task: Roger Federer. This time it was a clear matter: 6-3, 6-2 for a Federer who seems to be taking a liking to the new surface.
So what of the debate? Some love it, even bend down to kiss it. Others won’t come back again if it stays this way. Visually, it is certainly a delight for spectators, many of whom have commented on the refreshing sight of blue clay. ‘It looks nice,’ said one fan on Thursday, ‘but I don’t know how nice it is for the players.’
Journalists too can only speculate. Until Saturday. That is the day the traditional tennis tournament for the gathered journalists takes place. Then I’ll be able to tell you more about how it feels to play on the new clay. By Saturday, only a handful of players will remain in the competition. Of those, watch out for Del Potro, the Argentine US Open champion who looks to be in fine form.
And look at those socks. Any player on clay will remember coming home with red socks. Now they are blue. Is that the only difference? Is it all in a colour? Is the surface really more slippery, as some players suggest? Is it a matter of changing a rigid mindset? Can we imagine red grass at Wimbledon? Or purple grass? What about blue grass?