Each year as we enter the first stages of the clay court season, I like to reflect on how much I love this time of year and also, how so many fans despise it. It seems odd that a surface the requires a player to have a truly complete game can be hated as much as our beloved clay.
From Monte Carlo to Barcelona, from Rome to ultimately Roland Garros, the clay court season is built on attrition. Rally after rally, a player must have the endurance, patience, and all-around game necessary to outwit, outdistance, and overall, outlast his opponent.
It's impressive really how clay equalizes all players and it tells you who has the complete game and who does not. Players who have built their careers only on a booming serve or wicked forehand often fall to the wayside as much more complete players stay the course.
And yet, clay is so often hated. Maybe it's because those pesky European players whose early careers were built on the dusty red stuff often fail to be better on other surfaces. Or maybe it's that most power baseline players, and often, best players in the world fail to master a surface that requires more than they may be willing to give.
I often connect the disdain for clay to the backhanded compliment that is "dirtballer" or "clay-court specialist." These two phrases I personally despise, as they reveal how little love and respect is shown to players who are able to maximize their games on the most even of surfaces in tennis.
Personally, I live for the point construction and tactics that great clay court players possess. On clay, you really need to know when to be aggressive and when to play defensively. Some of the best rallies of the year are often on clay.
It's odd that clay isn't as beloved as it is, given that so many legends have been successful on it. Villas, Bjorg, Lendl, Nadal, and Federer all can stake claim to being among the best the game has ever seen on clay due to remarkable domination and/or consistency, with both Bjorg and Nadal being the very best.
Regardless, though, Clay deserves a much better fanfare than it receives. Maybe if fans realized what was so great about the red dirt, they might be more energized when April rolls around every year.
Here is to hoping that fans come to see that the red clay only makes players better. Any surface that can do that must be truly admired and loved.