Fiasco of Blue Clay: The Madrid Open Controversy

Sport is slow to change. Sports fans are even slower to accept those changes. Traditions, class, history, they live and die by those terms. Just look at the ruckus around VAR in football as a case in point. So, when change is introduced to a sport with as rich and varied a history as Tennis, of course pandemonium followed.

You see, there are three types of tennis surfaces, called courts, ranging from grass to clay and hard floors. They’re mostly found at local parks and clubs due to the ease of maintenance. Plain and simple, right? But it only changed due to one man’s vision to revolutionize the Madrid Open: Ion Tiriac.

Tiriac, a billionaire business mogul, is the Madrid Open owner, a premier professional tennis tournament that attracts the biggest players from all over the world.

Before his business venture, Tiriac had a colourful sports past as an international child table-tennis player champion who eventually became a member of the Romanian Olympic Ice Hockey team, and finally settled as a professional tennis player. In the last, he found victory, as he won the Doubles 1970 French Open with fellow Romanian Ilie Năstase.

Tiriac loved to push boundaries and set new heights for himself and whatever venture he associated himself with. Even after having a successful banking career, he stayed invested in tennis throughout his tenure as a professional coach, manager, agent, and committee president. Eventually, in 2009, he became the owner and organizer of the Madrid Open. He transformed the event from a hardcore, end-of-the-year event, to a red clay spectacle that defines the European tennis swing every spring. 

The change was an instant success. Everyone was happy with the way things turned out.

Well, almost everyone.

Around this time, the worldwide tennis landscape was changing. Many found it hard to keep track of the tiny yellow ball flying across a green colour court when watching tennis on TV. So, in 2005, the US Open changed the colour of the court from its trademark green to blue.

Instantly, the sport became easier to watch on television, and the reception was positive. The Australian Open – a Grand Slam – followed suit and pulled off a similar move in 2008. 2007 saw the change from green to purple in Miami and red courts in Bogota in 2013. Suddenly, tennis wasn’t so monochromatic.

This early 2000’s hardcore colour renaissance caught the attention of Mr Tiriac. 

In 2012, Tiriac was looking at ways to make Madrid Open more interesting on television. This wasn’t the first time he had tried something different. In 2004, he had replaced all the teenage ball kids with adult fashion models, a change that didn’t go down well. Undeterred by past failures, and the fact that his tournament was held on clay courts and not hard ones, the idea of ‘Blue Clay’ was born. 

To quickly explain the science required for change, normal red clay used at almost every single European clay-court events is composed of crushed red bricks. According to Tiriac, the blue clay used in 2012 was identical to red clay. During manufacturing, the only difference is that the naturally occurring iron oxide that creates the normal red colour was stripped from the crushed brick, creating a bleached, white powder. Blue dye was then used to complete the process. Reportedly, this colour change cost Tiriac double of what the red clay was purchased for, an expense he considered to be worth the extra cost. 

You had a positive shift in public perception towards coloured courts. A tournament was willing to splurge extra money to create a better viewing experience for fans, while a billionaire tennis fanatic used his time and resources to ensure all of this came together. What could go wrong? 

Since the inception of the idea in 2011, blue clay has found little support among the players. Soon enough though, blue clay was ratified for use as a permanent feature starting from the 2012 edition of the Madrid Open. Tiriac was convinced that once the players in opposition to the idea tested the surface, they would be convinced.

Judgment day came when players arrived in Madrid to begin the tournament, and things began to fall apart. Despite the Open’s popularity in recent years, one issue that repeatedly dogged the tournament was the soft and uneven courts due to poorly installed drainage systems.

The blue clay suffered the same issues, but with more severity. The combination of heavy rains and heat waves before opening day all but baked the clay base into a much harder surface than it should have been. Piling on to the misery, salt laid down on top of the courts to keep moisture away and retain color ended up crystallizing into an unbreakable film due to the extreme weather, making traction while sliding almost impossible and creating a condition similar to that of a slip and slide. 

This became extremely apparent when the then World No. 2, Rafael Nadal, conceded that the surface wasn’t comfortable after his opening day victory, wishing for a change from the next year. The then top-ranked player, Novak Djokovic, echoed Nadal’s thoughts after he dropped a set in his opening match. 

The court clearly favoured offensive players, as those who stuck around the baseline and moved less found the issues much apparent. This contradicts what clay is normally known for, typically providing an advantage to defensive players. 

Tempers rose to a fever pitch when Nadal and Djokovic were knocked out in the third round and quarterfinals, respectively. This was a stark contrast from the previous year, where they had faced off in the final. The semi-finals on the clay proved what many had already assumed, with four offensive, heavy-hitting baseliners making it to the final four. Blue had fundamentally changed what had defined clay.

It wasn’t just a colour change. It was a change in how a tennis match had to be played to win. Even after Roger Federer lifted the first and only blue clay trophy ever to exist, he still wasn’t in favour of the surface. To the surprise of no one, weeks later, the Association of Tennis Professionals, the ATP banned blue clay for all 2013 events, a decision met with unanimous praise by all players and industry leaders. Nadal would go on to win 2013’s title on clay, and eventually, Djokovic and Nadal would win 5 of the next 7 Madrid titles while Federer never made it to the finals since 2012.

Tennis is no stranger to gimmicks and stunts designed to draw in viewers, and changing court colour was no different, but while we are sure no one will forget the fateful year when Ion Tiriac decided to turn red clay blue, it remains a decision more infamous than inspired.

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