Clay Season

High tension strings, grooved shoes, and the constant tapping of shoe soles that exude stuck clay. Perplexed, shouldn’t be. This is just the beginning of Clay Court season. This leg of the season boasts the picturesque Monte Carlo by the sea, metropolitan Madrid, eternal Rome and ends at the legendary Roland Garros. Clay courts have provided a stumbling block to the greatest of players. Not many have been able to master this challenging conundrum. The great Pete Sampras never won the French Open; Federer by his own admission won it without beating the best in the business.

Why is clay so hard to play on?
For starts its slower, players find the transition from hard courts to clay extremely difficult. Why wouldn’t they? 70% of the courts in the world are hard courts. This court is always dominated by those who can control that racquet the best. You may wonder, shouldn’t all professional players be able handle their racquets. The trick on this court is pure technique. The big servers or the volleyers don’t dominate the sport anymore, and clay is no different purely because the ball sits up, allowing baseliners that additional second to choose their spot. The two biggest names, Nadal and Djokovic have dominated the grand slam circuit since 2010 with unmatched athleticism and huge top spin games that allow them to dictate pace on court.

This clay season has been rather stop-start unlike last year. Injuries and scheduling hasn’t allowed for continuous competition.

The Monte Carlo masters was the start of a new beginning for Rafa, who was defending the right to be called the ‘King of Clay’ and Djok was aiming to prove that he could relive those high standards of the previous year. What was worth noticing through the tournament was Nadal’s serve percentage. He averaged a 70% of first serves and attacked the body. Was this a new game plan? Surprisingly yes. Djokovic, arguably the best returner of serve since Agassi, attacked Nadal’s serve last year. This year though Nadals tried fizzing his first serve in, a technique he used at the Australian Open (which many may argue he threw away, rather than Djok winning it). He uses this technique when serving into the body, allowing him to recover faster and get into a position to launch into a solid attack, force the issue and utilize his off forehand that exposes the whole court. Djokovic sadly was hurting, during the tournament he lost his grandfather, and to honour his passing, he came back from a set down to reach the finals. Surely the ideal end to the tournament was going to be just another final between the two.

The final everyone was waiting forand Djok to tame the Mallorcan once more. A cloud of anxiety hung over Monte Carlo and the crowd expected a classic. Unfortunately for Nole, the Spaniard was relentless. He used his serve to perfection, targeted the body, on the deuce court that allowed him to hit deep with the off forehand and went wide with the top spin kicker on the ad court. Djokovic just didn’t have the answers. The serb had to settle with 25 unforced errors to only 11 winners. Nadals first serve percentage was an imperious 76% and closed out the match 6-3, 6-1. True, Djok was emotionally drained, but today he was just outclassed. Nadals first win over Nole, since the 2010 ATP London final. Nadal, now admittedly fearless.

Now to the most anticipated clay courts of the season, Mutua Madrid. The hugely commercial ‘Smurf’ courts. A court aimed at getting more viewership, an attempt to revolutionize clay court tennis.

The composition of the clay made the court tougher to play on. The clay colour is blue because it’s been treated and then dyed. The treatment involves sapping the iron oxide from the original red clay and then dying it blue. The whole process influenced the behavior of the clay, something most players were unhappy about.

The court didn’t allow a proper grip. Baseliners suffer as they can’t use the slide to their advantage. The clay favourites lost to their Davis Cup team mates in Verdasco and Tipseravic in the early rounds. The only benefactors of this court were fleet footed players and those with big serves. Who better to take advantage of this then the great Roger Federer. The greatest ever, doesn’t use the same defensive tactics to launch his attacks. He believes in shorter points amidst his usual ballet. The Swiss Maestro went all the way, displaying his beautiful array of shots and deservedly earned 2nd rank in the ATP rankings. Fed’s hope of making the French Open final would rely highly on his seeding for the tournament. He would need Djok to retain his titled at Rome against Rafa to keep rank 2.

Ion Tiriacs new look blue cay court will sadly not be remembered for the tennis. The issues with the court, the lack of consultation with ATP took away from the sport. Was the viewership factor, a revenue concern, enough to let tennis play second fiddle?

After analyzing the viewership factor, one could safely infer that it failed. Sky Sports analysts stated that in Europe majority of TV media is viewed in HD, which wouldn’t affect viewers ability to follow the ball. The viewership numbers hadn’t changed significantly, well not significant enough considering the investment made into Mini Smurf land in central Madrid and surely not big enough to lose the biggest names in the game – Rafael Nadal (who floated the possibility of avoiding the blue courts next year)

Would Internazionali BNL d’Italia return to normality? Yes it did. Probably the most historical clay court events in Europe, the courts in Rome boast all the big names. The penultimate warm up before the French. Britain’s hope, Murray returned to the clay courts this time, but would he break the Rafa-Nole stronghold? Or would Juan Martin Del Potro, winner at the Estoril, Portugal cause a stir?

Tennis fans were graced with what is the flavour of the year – a Nole-Rafa final. This time no baggage. Having blitz through the rounds both need a win in Rome. Djokovic to defend his title, and Rafa to win his sixth at Rome, and 45th event overall. The first ten games were an absolute joy to watch. Rafa served into the body, used the slice to good effect and relied on his off forehand to open up the court, whereas Novak, had the tried and tested formula of exposes Rafa’s short ball from the cross court forehand. Neither would blink first and something needed to break. A chair umpire’s call in the tenth game caused a massive stir after a 26 shot rally. Djok hit the line and almost had Rafa, only for the umpire to overrule and ask to reply the point. Nadal who lately has crumbled under pressure against the Serb, stood strong and served out the game. The momentum had swung his way. A city cultured with gladiators saw Rafa explode into his opponents serve and break immediately. The matador’s mental strength prevailed and he served out the set 7-5.

Noles game didn’t recover, and Rafa was relentless. He believed he could beat his nemesis for the second time in as many finals. The most athletic players on tour were once again covering every ounce of clay, but every time there was an opening Rafa called trumps. He broke in the first game of the second set and took control of the final. He was chases down drop shots, and even had the confidence to lob Nole on the run from way outside court. Was the Rafa we all knew back? Was he ready to stake claim on yet another clay court title? Italy on a Monday could have never been this exciting. The scars from previous finals seemed to have healed, the Mallorcan raced away to a win closing the set out at 6-3.

Roland Garros is the setting. The beautiful baked clay, glowing in the sunshine opens its gates on the 25th fortnight. Other then it being a Grand Slam, there are records to be broken. If Federer wins he might have a shot at being number one again, and would surpass Pete Sampras’s record number of weeks at number 1; If Djokovic wins, he would complete the Career Grand Slam (winning all 4 slams) and join the illustrious list of greats. Could this be the first time a decade has 3 Career Slam winners? Or would Rafa win his 7th French Open and surpass Bjorn Borg record at Roland Garros?

Roland Garros promises to be a spectacle. Having seen the courts just outside the city of Paris, I can guarantee the city will be buzzing. The compact Suzanne Lenglen and the beautifully built Phillippe Chatrier will stage the biggest names and matches this month. It all makes for mouth-watering viewing and with the stakes this big, it’s bound to get you to the edge of your seats.

– Bijon Keswani