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The Volley: Blue clay, best-of-three—can Madrid’s Cradle of Innovation lead to more changes in tennis?
Celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the wackiest week in tennis history, positing why the sport is slow to embrace change, and offering ideal innovations yet to come.
Published May 06, 2022
WATCH: Nadal has long been the most tenacious man in tennis, maintaining that reputation in Madrid this week.
The Mutua Madrid Open has long been home to some of the sport’s “choicest” innovations, none more memorable than its ill-fated attempt to redefine clay with a neon blue hue. Though the tournament has never revisited its cyan fantasia, Madrid continues to try new things—to reactions that often range from ambivalent to outraged. TENNIS.com reporters David Kane and Stephanie Livaudais break down what innovations may still be needed in this undeniably conservative sport in the latest edition of “The Volley.”
David Kane: Hey, Steph! The clay may no longer be blue in Madrid, but I find myself feeling a similar tint at the thought of this tournament already coming to an end. The women’s event is on the brink of crowning an unexpected champion while the men’s draw is nicely taking shape. I’ll cede the floor to you if you have any immediate thoughts on Rafael Nadal’s heroic victory over David Goffin…
Stephanie Livaudais: Hi David! As a Real Madrid fan, I was already super excited after last night’s Champions League comeback win, and Nadal’s comeback today felt like a great continuation. How many match points did he save in the end? I lost count. Today we ran an article asking if Nadal was the king of comebacks—at this point I’d say the answer is yes.
But could he have pulled off the same epic win if this was on the blue clay from 2012?
DK: Blue clay broke even the most tenacious man in tennis. Given how his Madrid campaign ended that year—a rare defeat to Fernando Verdasco from 5-2 up in the third—it’s safe to say Nadal has kept Eiffel 65 off his playlists in the decade since Madrid attempted the most audacious innovation in its history.
At the time, the event only ever drew giggles for attractions like its employment of “ball models,” a stark departure from the ballkids who typically roam the court. Blue clay was, in the words of longtime owner Ion Tiriac, meant to be a more noble effort, one that could have made the sport “more interesting on the \[TV\] screen.”
Looking back, it certainly left an impression.
SL: And it followed in line with the changes that a lot of hard-court tournaments made in previous years, when they slowly adopted blue as the court surface color for better contrast with the ball. In Madrid’s case, the blue was a nod to the tournament’s sponsor Mutua Madrileña, but it achieved the same goal—at least, aesthetically.
In practice, the blue clay was different in more than just visuals: the players actually found it difficult to play on, calling it “slippery” and “dangerous.” Some—including Nadal and Novak Djokovic—threatened to boycott the event if they didn’t return to the red stuff. Nadal’s parting words: “The winner will be the one who doesn't get hurt by the end of the week.”
DK: In inimitable fashion, Serena Williams, who went on to win the WTA title that year, saw missiles fired from the top men and fired back, calling them “weenies” for failing to adapt. And indeed, not all clay courts are created equal, regardless of color. Weeks earlier, Andrea Petkovic injured her ankle on a more slippery patch of clay at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, but the tournament suffered no such backlash and continues its own unique tradition of indoor clay to this day.
That Nadal and Djokovic both (relatively) underperformed but went on to make the final of Roland Garros lent credence to their complaints: it’s not me, it’s blue.
SL: So were the blue-clay blues due to a matter of poor execution or just a bad first impression? It seems like it would have had to be done perfectly to avoid the huge amount of criticism that the tournament received for it. By contrast, this year Madrid became the first tournament to offer players unlimited challenges with video replay—something that’s been met with relatively quick acceptance, after 16 years of relying solely on ball marks.
Considering how strong the reaction was to Madrid’s willingness to experiment with something as sacred as surface itself, it’s no surprise that tennis as a whole can be seen as resistant to change.
DK: Like the secret service, the best changes in tennis seem to be ones that go unseen. Hawk-Eye Live has proven a seamless integration to matches. If anything, it keeps them going rather than causing needless interruptions from challenges.
Sideline coaching, too, has been met with similar indifference since it was implemented by the WTA tour in 2020. Here was a thing that was happening anyway and with no means to stop it, it now allows coaches and players to maintain their rhythm without incurring violations or exploiting their relationship through often uncomfortable changeovers.
The most famous recent innovation is the introduction of a courtside countdown clock, one which even I, far from a tennis traditionalist, initially worried would ruin matches. Would spectators catch on to the ticking clock and shout out as players attempted to serve? How would umpires interpret it in light of longer points? Those fears proved unfounded as it, at least anecdotally, yielded the opposite effect: former world No. 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova noted how previously quicker players were slowing down now that they could see how much time they actually had.
Beyond that, tennis is in many ways the same sport it has always been; why do you think that is?
SL: Personally, I was fretting more when Hawk-Eye Live was introduced to ATP and WTA tournaments and later the 2020 US Open. I remember being worried that it was going to feel too unnatural, that we’d lose the human touch and tradition of having linespeople, but it ultimately felt like a necessity during the sport’s return during the height of COVID-19.
And there’s probably at least part of the answer to your question: tennis, more than a lot of other sports, stands with tradition and history. There’s an instinct to preserve what makes tennis unique, and I think fans might worry that those idiosyncrasies are slowly being phased out by cold technology.
Another issue is logistics: the sport has so many governing bodies, and tournaments sometimes operate independently of the other tour events. The sheer challenge of introducing a major change, getting all relevant bodies to approve it, and then asking every single tournament to adopt it can’t be discounted.
DK: It’s fascinating to see where tournaments and players (and fans) draw the line on what changes are acceptable. For example, the Grand Slam tournaments have been tinkering with their respective scoring formats for several years, only to at last announce a uniform approach at the start of 2022.
Those in charge of making those decisions hopefully kept off Twitter, where the endlessly exhausting Best of 3 vs Best of 5 debate rages on: should all matches be played in the shorter format, or should a hybrid approach be adapted where the final few rounds are all played out to a fifth? In the immortal words of Meredith Marks, I’m disengaging from that conversation but I’m happy to drop my opinion on my way out.
But first, is there a change in the way tennis is played or presented that you’re dying to see? I’m hoping a fervent desire for a blue-clay comeback is among the many tennis takes we share in common.
Tennis, more than a lot of other sports, stands with tradition and history. There’s an instinct to preserve what makes tennis unique, and I think fans might worry that those idiosyncrasies are slowly being phased out by cold technology.
SL: I really hope another tournament dares to try it! I’d love to see some pink clay, but that might be too much to ask.
But in all seriousness, I wish there would be a little bit more adoption of new technology. For example, Hawk-Eye came to tennis in 2006, half a decade after it was being used in other sports. And then it took another decade and a half for electronic line calling to finally hit clay, even though the FOXTENN technology had already been around for a while. I can’t think of many other sports where such a discrepancy—challenging a call at the US Open, versus deciphering a ball mark at Roland Garros—would be tolerated.
While they’re tinkering with the challenges system, let’s give players and umpires instant replay—it’s about time. And let players challenge everything from foot faults to lets to double bounces, not just line calls. We’ve seen in Madrid with the unlimited challenges that players will be judicial about how often they stop play anyways, and it would go a long way to improve relationships between players and umpires.
DK: Like many a Real Housewife, I can’t completely disengage when I say: Make All Matches Best of Three. Yes, even men’s matches at majors.
For context: the most gripping match I’ve ever watched occurred between Svetlana Kuznetsova (shoutout to Sveta getting TWO mentions in this highly topical discussion) and Francesca Schiavone, a 16-14 final set at the 2011 Australian Open that maximized the climactic drama that keeps fans coming back. The efforts to minimize that moment with 10-point tiebreakers feels like missing the forest for the trees; if we’re in the business of shortening matches, start by cutting the fatty middle rather than slicing off the end.
SL: The biggest innovation of all for tennis would be to present a uniform product, and best-of-three across the board seems like the most impactful way to do that. A lot of purists would argue that best-of-five is what makes the Grand Slams special, but not only is that discounting all of the women’s titles, it’s also not true: best-of-five was the norm on the men’s tour for a long time. But over the years, it was phased out from Davis Cup to Masters 1000 finals, and Grand Slams are just the last ones to change.
DK: Until either of us have unlimited power to bend tennis to our whims, we’ll have to save our suggestions for The Volley.