Smurf Clay, Roger Federer and the State of the ATP Tour

Kevin CraftContributor IMay 17, 2012

ROME, ITALY - MAY 16:  Roger Federer of Switzerland plays a backhand against Carlos Berlocq of Argentina in their second round match during day five of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2012 at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 16, 2012 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It should come as no surprise that Roger Federer, not Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, is the first man in the history of professional tennis to win a Masters 1000 tournament on blue clay.

He earned that distinction when he defeated Tomas Berdych in the finals of the 2012 Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open this past Sunday. The tournament served as a reminder that what separates Federer from his two biggest rivals isn’t that he has more grand slam titles than the two of them combined, but that his versatile game remains adaptable to all types of playing conditions while the effectiveness of Nadal and Djokovic's grind-and-pound style gets lost in the translation from slow courts to fast ones.

The proprietors of the Madrid Open made a bold, if unpopular, decision to re-brand their tournament by changing the color of the clay, but as New York Times writer Christopher Clarey points out, “Branding should not be dismissed reflexively as gimmickry.”

Before this year, the Madrid Open was somewhat indistinguishable from the two clay court Masters 1000 tournaments—Monte Carlo and Rome—between which it falls every calendar year, and from an “any press is good press” perspective, changing the clay color reaped incredible benefits for a tournament that usually receives cursory coverage.

In addition to changing the look of the tournament, the blue clay had a tangible impact on the feel. By all accounts, the new Smurf-colored clay was more slippery and played faster than a typical clay court surface.* Such playing conditions reward clean-hitting players like Federer, who can smack winners from mind-boggling angles at any point during a rally, and big-hitting players like Berdych, who overpower opponents with sheer pace. They do not favor the Nadals and Djokovics of the tennis world, whose the-longer-the-rally-the-better style works best on slow surfaces.

So when Federer bested Berdych in the Madrid finals, he once again showed why he is arguably the most adroit player in the history of professional tennis; his proven ability to succeed on every type of surface all over the world remains unparalleled.

But the shift from the slow-bouncing red clay to fast-bouncing blue clay begs a larger question that, up to this point, has gone largely unaddressed by the cadre of reporters covering the ATP Tour: How different would the current rankings look if the speed of the courts at the ATP’s major tournaments were more varied?

It’s no secret that over the past decade, men’s professional tennis has become somewhat homogenized. From the 1970s through the 1990s, the ATP tour featured men with a wide array of playing styles. Some employed the power baseline game pioneered by Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg and perfected by Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi. Others, from John McEnroe to Boris Becker to Pete Sampras, utilized the aggressive and always attacking serve-and-volley game. Some used a bit of both.

But starting with the retirement of Sampras and the evolution of Federer from Sampras-clone to attacking power baseliner, tennis has been dominated by players who hug the back of the court and favor good defensive tactics over risky attacking schemes.

Analysts, coaches and journalists have offered several explanations for this evolution. The most frequently cited is the introduction of co-poly strings, which allow players to simultaneously generate previously unfathomable combinations of spin and pace. The strings make passing shots easier and can turn defensive shots, like a backhanded stab, into down-the-line winners. As a result, players who charge the net risk opening up large sections of the court, which baseliners can now target with incredible consistency thanks to high-tech rackets. Simply put, offensive tennis no longer yields high dividends.

But another change that has not received as much credit for ushering in this homogenized age of men’s tennis is the slowing of playing surfaces at tournaments all around the world.

For much of the open era, conventional wisdom held that grass courts were the fastest and clay courts were the slowest and hard courts fell somewhere in between. But starting in the early 2000s,  fans complained that fast playing conditions at major tournaments like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open had taken long rallies, and with them much of the drama, out of men’s tennis.

Tournament organizers apparently took the criticism to heart. In 2002, the All England Lawn and Tennis Club changed the composition of the grass they used to make it more durable, but according to many of the players, the end result was that the once blisteringly fast grass courts at Wimbledon slowed down considerably. In the 1990s, Andre Agassi was the only baseline player to win Wimbledon; in the 2000s, Pete Sampras was the only serve-and-volley player to take home the title.

As if slowing down the majestic Wimbledon lawns wasn’t enough to tip the power balance of the tour in favor of baselines huggers, the U.S. Open followed suit. According to tournament director Jim Curley, groundskeepers began slowing down the hard-court surface, considered to be second fastest only to Wimbledon, in 2002 by adding more sand to the paint that graces the cover of the Flushing Meadows’ deco-turf surface. In 2011, Federer and Mardy Fish noticed that the U.S. Open courts were playing even slower than they had in previous years.

Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are the two biggest examples of tournaments that have opted for slower playing conditions, but they are not the only ones. After losing to Federer in the finals of the 2012, Andy Murray noted that outside of that tournament and the indoor season, most of the courts on the ATP play slowly. From Yahoo! Sports:

I think that the indoor season and the surfaces like this one, I mean, if there were more tournaments on these courts, I think [Federer] could definitely be No. 1 in the world for the next few years. It really suits his game well. Just so many of the courts are so slow now.

He also said that he looked forward to playing the Masters 1000s events at Indian Wells and Miami, where the courts are slower.

The slowing down of the men’s game is one of the primary reasons why Djokovic and Nadal have supplanted Federer at the top of the rankings. While Federer has had plenty of success during the slowed-down era of men's tennis, he has always preferred faster playing conditions. He started his career as a serve-and-volley player à la Sampras, and even though he has shifted to a baseline style, he prefers to try and hit winners early in a point. Djokovic and Nadal, on the other hand, use their speed and superior conditioning to keep rallies going until their opponent either commits an error or hits a week return that they can convert into a winner.

It’s not that Djokovic and Nadal have never been successful on fast courts—both men have taken home the Dubai title—but neither has been consistently great on fast surfaces as Federer has. Federer has won five championships at Dubai and six Barclays ATP World Tour Finals titles, another tournament held on relatively fast surfaces. And he’s never lost to Nadal on an indoor court.

On the red clay at Roland Garros and on the slowed-down grass at Wimbledon, Djokovic and Nadal have a distinct advantage over Federer. That’s not to say Federer cannot be successful on slower courts—he did win Wimbledon six times in the 2000s and the French Open in 2009—but at this stage in his career, he is most certainly the underdog when he meets his two rivals anywhere outside of Dubai, the word tour finals and Madrid, assuming the tournament opts to stick the blue clay.

Whether or not the men’s game benefits from the homogenization of the game and from the ubiquity of slower playing conditions is up for debate. Grantland’s Brian Philips articulately summed up the state of men's tennis when he said the current era “feels almost epic." Part of the reason for this feeling has to do with the fact that the tour is lucky to have three incredibly talented individuals at the top of its ranks.

But another part of this epic feeling stems from the fact that the men’s tennis is no longer bereft of long rallies; games at every major tournament contain mind-boggling long exchanges in which the tension ratchets up a notch with each ball that is lobbed over the net. I grew up watching Sampras lay waste to the tour with his fast playing style, and I loved every minute of it. But I would much prefer to watch the current crop of ATP players duke it out on slow courts than return to the faster days of yore.

Before writers and fans write off Federer or begin to put Nadal and Djokovic on the list of all-time greats, they should consider that the latter owe part of their success to playing conditions that favor their style of play. Transport these three players back to the 1980s and Federer has a much better chance than Djokovic and Nadal at replicating his successes.

That is why he is still the best tennis player in the world, even if he fails to take home any more majors. 

*I must confess that I was somewhat surprised, and not the least bit perturbed, that the change from red to blue clay transformed Nadal and Djokovic from two of the best tennis players in the world to the two biggest crybabies on the ATP Tour—on this particular matter, Serena has been the most articulate.

Yes, they were consistent in their criticisms from day one, and yes, their argument that slippery clay puts players’ health at risk may be valid. But whining and threatening to boycott future tournaments in the immediate aftermath of a loss, something both players did at Madrid, is just bad sportsmanship. It diminishes the accomplishments of the victors and shifts the spotlight to the playing conditions.

What’s even more galling is that both Nadal and Djokovic lost to fellow countrymen and professed friends Fernando Verdasco and Janko Tipsarevic. Considering their opponents were not blood rivals, you would think that they would have chosen to humbly accept defeat and continue their criticism of the blue clay at a later date. Alas, they took the less classy path and acted like petulant children.

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