Rubbing salt into blue clay

Author: Stephanie Kovalchik

Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open

Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open.

Image by Christopher Johnson.

Roland Garros 2012, the second Grand Slam of the ATP tennis tour, officially kicks off this week with the mens' singles draw to be announced on the 25th May. By regaining the No. 2 position in the ATP rankings after Monday's win of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia title, Rafael Nadal has cleared the way for a back-to-back championship rematch against No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the French Open finals. If the prospect of a thirty-third battle between the Majorcan and Serb isn't enough reason to closely follow this year's French Open, here is one more reason: the end of the 2012 Paris Slam could see Roger Federer reclaim his reign as number one in the ATP world rankings.

With Djokovic's loss in Rome, the ever regal Federer would be within 300 points of the top spot if he were to win the clay Slam. Which means that a spectacular win from the Swiss and a spectacular loss from the Serb could conceivably end with Federer earning a 17th major title and the ATP throne. Though more than a mere possibility, the very possibility shows how much the field at the highest echelon of the sport has narrowed over the year. And with Djokovic still having to defend two Grand Slams after Paris to Federer's none, it is looking more and more like the current No. 3, back after one week at No. 2, will prove by the end of the season that a tennis player's greatest years don't have to end at age thirty.

If the clay circuit does end with a change of guard, it could be argued that one man made it possible: Ion Tiriac. It was Tiriac, former tennis professional turned billionaire business men and tennis promoter, who this year, in his House of Magic, turned red clay blue. Yes, just two weeks ago, at the Madrid Masters 1000's Caja Magica, ATP and WTA players competed for the first time on the experimental surface - a salty iron oxide, whose cerulean glow suspiciously matched the azure logo of the tournament's sponsor Mutua Madrid. By now followers of tennis are well aware that most of the ATP players did not welcome the change.

Tiriac says the change was intended to improve the visibility of the ball. Others have speculated that the blue clay was a publicity stunt. While all might not agree on the motives behind the introduction of the new surface, most will agree that it was handled poorly. The Madrid tournament organizers would have done well to consult with Babolat who faced a similar situation last year when they introduced a new ball at the French Open. In preparation for the switch, Babolat conducted numerous tests in the lab and trials with the highest-ranked players to make sure that it would be a change each tour would have no issues adapting to. And, while the switch didn't escape criticism, the transition went smoothly.

Tiriac and his associates appear to have been less considerate of players' sentiments in deciding to debute the blue terrain so soon. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 and 2 seeds at the 2012 Madrid Open, were particularly outspoken about their dislike of the surface, saying that it was too fast and too slippery, making them each feel that they could not safely play the kind of all out gutsy tennis they always do. The accusations have been serious and could have serious repercussions for Tiriac's tournament and whatever ambitions he might have about a fifth Grand Slam (see Steve Tignor's piece Fever Pitch). Djokovic and Nadal have each said that come 2013 if there is blue clay in Madrid they won't be.

Given their surprising early exits - Djokovic, the defending champion, was out by the quarters after a loss to fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic; Nadal, who has won and been a finalist twice in Madrid, was also upset by a fellow countrymen, Fernando Verdasco, in the round of 16, his first loss to Verdasco of 15 meetings - it could be said that the grumblings of the No. 1 and 2 are just sour grapes. To see whether tierra azul was truly tierra rara, I compared clay-surface performance statistics, averaged over the last three years, to the numbers at this year's Madrid Masters for each of the top eight seeds. Within each player's plot in Figures 1 and 2, service stats are on the left and return stats are on the right. The region in red indicates the player's three-year average on clay, plus or minus one standard error. A key for each statistic shown is given below.

Comparative performance on clay for seeds 1 through 4 at 2012 Madrid Open Masters.

Figure 1. Comparative performance on clay for seeds 1 through 4 at 2012 Madrid Open Masters (blue) and 3-year average (+/- SE) on clay. Key at bottom of article.

Based on the average career clay performance among the current top 100, the service and return statistics have been ordered so that a player's numbers generally increase when read from left to right. With this ordering, we can easily judge improvement from the comparative position of each profile's line, with better performance indicated by a higher and more steepily rising profile. Considering the return side at Madrid 2012, 5 of the top 8 were underperforming when compared to what their 3-year average clay performance would have predicted. From these numbers, Djokovic, often spoken of as the current best returner in the game, looked like an entirely different player, as nearly every return stat took a sharp nosedive. Take his percentage of return games (RGW) won and break points converted (BPC), for example. These are normally an impressive 38% and 46% on clay, but on the Mutua Open's blue clay dropped to 14% and 17%.

Comparative performance on clay for seeds 5 through 8 at 2012 Madrid Open Masters.

Figure 2. Comparative performance on clay for seeds 5 through 8 at 2012 Madrid Open Masters (blue) and 3-year average (+/- SE) on clay. Key at bottom of article.

Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the one player whose return stats seemed unaffected by the new surface, while Nadal and Czech Tomas Berdych actually had a boost in their return game. Berdych's break point conversion rate was especially strong, which could explain why so many commentators were impressed by his play at Madrid.

Looking at the service side, the rise in the average aces per service game (AA) for almost evey seed confirms that the surface was playing fast. But while the player's "first-strike" numbers might have benefited from the new surface, measures that are more dependent on movement, like break points saved (BPS) and break points faced (BPA), showed a noticeable decline for most of the top players. And one way to read the extreme alteration in Nadal's service game is as evidence of a shift in strategy in response to a strange terrain. The Madrid numbers show the king of clay going for bigger serves and playing less effectively on longer points, completely out-of-keeping with his usually impeccable performance on red dirt. While the Majorcan normally devastates his opponents on clay with an 86% service game win rate (SGW), this year in Madrid his rate was down to 61.5%.

Comments from the players suggested that the experimental blue surface was playing more like a hard court than a clay court. The numbers on the return side give some support for this. The difference between the average return stat at Madrid was -6% compared to the 3-year clay averages but was -3.8% when compared to the 3-year hardcourt averages. So La Pista Azul's difference with hardcourt was smaller but still shows a massive drop in performance relative to the miniscule margins that decide the victors and losers in today's tennis. With underperformance of this magnitude, Tiriac will have a hard sell to make if he wants to convince the ATP that blue clay belongs on the tour.

Key to figure statistics. All are given as a percentage.
DFA Double faults to total service games
AA Total aces to total service games
SSW Points won on second serve to second serves in
BPS Break points saved to break points faced
SPW Total service points won to service points played
FS First serve in to total first serves
BPA Break points faced to total service games
FSW Points won on first serve to first serves in
SGW Service games won over total games won
RGW Return games won over total games won
FRW Points won on first return of total first returns
RPW Return points won over total return points
BPC Break points converted over break point opportunities
TPW Points won over points played
SRW Points won on second return over all second returns
BPOA Break point opportunities over return games

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