Debate Over Blue Clay Highlights Battle Between Players And Owners

Written by: on 15th May 2012
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Debate Over Blue Clay Highlights Battle Between Players And Owners   |

It’s not easy being a tournament owner or director these days, not with such a vocal group of top players. Power broker and Madrid tournament owner Ion Tiriac found that out last week when Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal rode him relentlessly because of the slippery conditions of the blue clay courts.

Former ATP CEO Adam Helfant also found that out when Djokovic blamed him for the whole mess.

The billionaire Tiriac has decided to step down from his administrative role at the tournament next year, but will remain as owner and the chairman of the event along with City of Madrid. Before the tournament ended, he showed a bit of clout in striking a maintenance deal with the city, which will now be responsible for maintaining the courts throughout the year, rather than tearing some of them up and replacing them annually.

“We’ve had the same [guy] who has been working on the courts at Roland Garros for 12 years, ” Tiriac said. “We know that a new court is never good, even if we keep sweeping it, they have to play on it. Here in Madrid, we have to build and dismantle it each year. There’s a reason that the court is what it is. We did not want to have so many bad bounces as before. What happens is that they have been pushing, pushing and pressing it to compress it, and have done it so much that it has become too hard.”

The criticism of Tiriac and his decision to push through with a new surface without the approval of the players went beyond the locker room, with Spaniard Toni Nadal , the uncle and coach of Rafael saying: “I’ll thank you if you take [Tiriac] somewhere else, to see if we can organize (the tournament) without him, What power this man must have that allows him to change customs and habits of the players. . . Tiriac apologized to Rafa after the match. But the big culprit is ATP, which should not have given permission (for blue clay) and I hope that they do not give it next year.”

Djokovic, who has been a big part of the players’ movement to compress the schedule and empower players, was furious with Helfant, who was in Madrid along with former ATP CEOs Mark Miles and Etienne de Villiers as guests of Tiriac.

“They made a decision without the players agreeing on it so this is a rule that has to be changed immediately,” Djokovic said. “The tournament leaders have done their job, they represent their own interests so I cannot blame them. They are fighting for their own rights. The fault is from the people who gave them permission to do these things. This is just a clear example of how our system does not work in favor of players. It was the last president [Helfant] who made the decision. It’s very simple. He was going away, he knew his contract was not being renewed so he made this decision on his own … he didn’t really care about tennis, about what the players think.”

Helfant, who stepped down last December after two years and was replaced by Australian Brad Drewett, said that he gave the tournament the go ahead only after receiving assurances the blue courts would play the same as traditional red clay. Whether he received proper assurances is debatable, but he also admitted that he had to cast the tiebreaking vote on the ATP Board over the issue. Miles once said that he never had to cast a tiebreaking vote during his six-year term.

“The blue courts look terrific on TV,” said Helfant. “The ATP has a responsibility to expand the fan base and increase revenue. That doesn’t mean the ATP should throw tradition out of the window but if you don’t try it, if you don’t have innovation, you have no chance at all.”

Tiriac said much the same thing after he and tournament director Manolo Santana were whistled at by fans during the on court trophy presentation after Serena Williams beat Victoria Azarenka for the WTA title on Sunday.

“Do not whistle at him, but at me,” Tiriac said. “I take responsibility for those whistles, Santana should not be blamed. It’s been a tough week for everyone. Not so much for me, because I’m too old. The technicians have worked like dogs until 5 AM to correct the condition of the courts. That the conditions are not perfect is obvious, but they are the same conditions for all players.”

Tiriac stated that he is planning on keeping the clay blue, but the ATP has yet to decide whether they will allow blue clay in 2013. Tiriac just wishes that the players would see the big picture.

“A worldwide tournament is not created for one player, if it was it would fail,” he said. “I don’t know when they are going to decide about the blue court, but we can’t go against their decision. [The players] should consider television audiences. We fight for money, sponsors and television time. And there are studies that tell us that the visibility of the ball increases with the blue.’”

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