Who Wants a Backhanded Compliment?

Michael LanichCorrespondent IMay 13, 2009

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 13:  Rafael Nadal of Spain serves against Jurgen Melzer of Austria in their second round  match during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 13, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

If you were a woman and someone said to you "I like your dress very much. It does wonders for your figure," what would you think?

Initially, you might think that you are on the receiving end of a very fine compliment, but beneath the shiny surface lurks an insult. 

What they are really saying is that your figure in general is rather bad, and that the dress really helps, so it's not much a compliment at all.

Need a few more examples?  Here they are:

"You look so nice today, I almost didn't recognize you."

"You have the greatest untapped potential of anyone I've ever dated."

"Most guys think they have to have a cool car, but not you."

I'm sure that most of us have had a few backhanded compliments tossed at us in our lives thus far, and I think we can all agree that there was nothing complimentary about them.

So when someone calls another tennis player a "clay-court specialist" or a "dirtballer", I wince slightly. 

In tennis, there probably isn't a better backhanded compliment than either term, and to be honest, it shouldn't be used.

What is a "clay-court specialist"?

To those who many not know, it commonly refers to players who dominate mostly on clay, but cannot produce similar results on either grass or hardcourts.

The term "clay-court specialist" began gaining real traction in the 90's after many events switched primarily from clay our grass to hard court. 

Many players who would have normally excelled in the  70's and 80's, found it difficult to play beyond their favored surface.  Grass was down to only a few events, and hard courts had become the surface of choice for the baseline game.

Besides being an almost derogatory term for a player, the term itself shows an almost lack of respect for the surface itself which is wrong for many reasons.

For one, clay is probably the most difficult surface to master, and cannot be mastered simply with a booming serve or laser forehand. 

It takes tact, guile, endurance, and a variety of skilled shots.  In many ways, strategy and outwitting your opponent are more important on this surface than anything else.

Now, this should garner the surface with much respect and admiration, but sadly it's the opposite.  We now live in an era almost completely dominated by the power baseline game. Therefore, most of our favorite players lose often and early in these clay court tournaments as well as Roland Garros.  If Andy Roddick is your favorite player, you may as well skip following him for a few months until Wimbledon rolls around.

While top players like Nadal and Federer, along with a handful of others have shown they can come to the net confidently, most lack the skill to do it effectively.

Along with an overall improvement in all aspects of his game, Rafa for instance, who should now be considererd an all surface threat, is still regarded mostly as a clay courter.   It is a shame that even when a player who was once a threat largely on clay, but is now one at all times, is still given a title of such insult.  It shows just how much of a shadow the term "clay courter" can create for a player.  In many ways once  you have it, it's there for life.

I love clay.  While others cringe when the spring clay season starts, I applaud it.  To me, clay brings out the very best in a player.  It takes so much more to win. 

You need to be smart, in fantastic shape, and ready to grind out a match full of great shot-making, rather than ace after ace. 

Points become longer, and you have to throw everything at your opponent to win.  It total, it takes a truly complete player to win on clay often.

While I cannot deny that I would like to see more players who excel on clay do better on other surfaces, I don't necessarily hold it against them, just as I don't hold it against Murray, Roddick and others for doing little on clay.  And no, I don't think of them as "hard court specialists."