Three Unmissable Events of the Clay Season

Attending Rome’s Court Pietrangeli should be on every tennis fan’s bucket list.

The draw is whittling down nicely at Houston’s grandly titled US Men’s Clay Court Championship. The WTA has already completed a fine week in Charleston. Clay, whether we like it or not, is upon us. There are unbroken months of dirt ahead, and it’s only getting redder. Soon it’ll be everywhere – swirling into our eyes, clogging our nostrils and matting our hair. With the last of the clear air, I’m looking forward to the three landmark events that excite me the most about the coming European clay season.

Mutua Madrid Open, Madrid

Madrid was of course notorious last year for its blue clay, which was roundly condemned at the time, but has since grown so toxic in frenzied retrospect that it might as well have been laced with arsenic. Actually, Madrid’s surface was notorious for two things: its colour and its slipperiness. The organisers insisted repeatedly that these two factors weren’t related: the slickness was the result of a shoddy job when laying the court down, and had nothing to do with the colour. They pointed out that an older blue court had been available on the site for a year, and that it was no more slippery than the Madrid surface is in other years (which is to say quite slippery).

Nevertheless, cerulean dirt and insecure footing became so inextricably bound up in people’s minds that there was no way to separate them, even at the time. It didn’t help that the tournament’s owner Ion Tiriac is held out in such low regard that any attempt to defend his event has come to seem wilfully perverse. It was very easy to assume Tiriac was lying, because he’s a natural villain  It was harder to assume Manolo Santana and Carlos Moya were lying, as well. The consensus emerged that they’d been duped. There’s nothing that wicked Tiriac won’t stoop to.

In the end, Madrid’s blue surface – which improved televisibility (a word I just made up) and resembled nothing more lethal than laundry powder – was felt to be too unpredictable and too unsafe, and fatally disruptive to everyone’s Roland Garros preparation. It was so unpredictable that almost only seeded players made the quarterfinals (two non-seeded women pushed to the final eight). It was so unsafe that it saw fewer serious injuries sustained than most other events of similar stature; look at the recent Miami event, whose attrition rate was comparable to The Somme. Of course any subsequent niggle suffered by anyone was duly ascribed to the blue dirt, including shoulder twinges and a stomach virus. And it was so disruptive that the following week in Rome the men’s semifinals consisted of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, who all went on to reach the French Open semifinals.

On the men’s side, Madrid produced the first decent Masters final in over a year; an electric blue tussle between Federer and Tomas Berdych. The women’s final was a perfunctory blowout, though this had nothing to do with the court. It had everything to do with Serena Williams playing as she can, thus rendering her opponent irrelevant, notwithstanding that her opponent was world number one Victoria Azarenka.

In any case, the chorus of disapproval was not merely deafening but decisive. Nadal and Djokovic declared they wouldn’t come back unless the clay was returned to its proper shade. Williams recently remarked that she doesn’t ‘know of anyone that’s going to miss the blue clay’. Consequently, this year it’s back to red. The irony, if we can call it that, is that the Madrid surface is always relatively slick. But you can be sure the tournament work diligently to guarantee secure footing this year, even if they have to lay down Velcro, and that everyone will claim it is due to the colour. I think it’s a shame, but I’m still looking forward to it.

Internazionali BNL d’Italia, Rome

Rome is my favourite combined tennis event outside of the four Majors.

It contrives the perfect alchemy of real and fake tradition; the real evoked by the thousands of fine matches it has hosted over the decades, and the fake by the kitsch faux-Classicism of the venue itself. The Foro Italico’s striven-for effect of gladiatorial antiquity is utterly undone by the slightest knowledge of the facility’s history: it is a Mussolini-era monument to Il Duce’s ego, and testifies to his overweening determination to connect his rule with ancient Rome. The adjacent swimming pool is a real eye-opener.

But in the heat of battle, especially in the semi-submerged old Court Pietrangeli, the absurd colonnades and statues become the best set dressing in the sport. Throw in ideal clay, typically excellent weather, and a local crowd only ever one inconvenience away from rioting, and you’re all but guaranteed a magical week in which high drama becomes the norm rather than the exception, especially when Italian players make a bold run through the draw.

Last year’s bold locals were Andreas Seppi and Flavia Pennetta, who both ran all the way to the quarters. Seppi’s excruciatingly tense victory over Stanislas Wawrinka was the match of the tournament, conducted in a restive twilight atmosphere on Pietrangeli. There’s no telling what the crowd would have done had the Italian lost. After Li Na’s morbidly fascinating third set collapse to Maria Sharapova in the final, the crowd really did lose it, indulging in some minor civic unrest when it was announced the men’s final was delayed. Boos rang out lustily, security stepped in, and the Center Court was littered with bottles.

Open de Nice Côte d’Azur, Nice

The Open de Cote d’Azur is an ATP 250 level event staged in Nice the week before Roland Garros, and it is cursed.

It first ran in 2010, taking the place of Kitzbühel on the tour calendar. The week before a Major is a tricky slot for a tournament, especially given that the top male players no longer bother with anything more strenuous than inconsequential exhibitions – think Kooyong or The Boodles – conserving their energy and time for meticulous acclimatisation and useless media events.

Consequently, the best Nice can manage to attract are a few standouts from the second tier. However, even to secure their services, the tournament has apparently struck a Faustian deal with Mephistopheles. Richard Gasquet won the tournament’s inaugural edition, then travelled to Paris and lost in the first round from two sets up. Nicolas Almagro won Nice in 2011, then lost in the first round in Paris from two sets up. Only divine intervention prevented another recurrence last year, in the form of Brian Baker.

Astute fans will remember that it was precisely a year ago that Baker shot to prominence, setting forth on his seemingly quixotic quest to have a professional tennis career. He won the USTA’s French Open wildcard playoff series thing, before travelling to continental Europe and qualifying for Nice. The rest is history. He pushed through qualifying, and then pushed further – all the way to the final. Although he fell to Almagro, his audacious run so impressed the tournament’s demonic patron that the curse was temporarily suspended, with the dire promise that it will return tenfold if Baker doesn’t reprise his heroics every year thereafter.

The Cote d’Azur is unquestionably an idyllic location at which to stage a decisive battle between heaven and hell, and Baker’s shoulders are slight ones upon which to place the fate of so many. But I think he’s up for it. In fact, he’ll probably win it. And then lose in the first round at the French Open from two sets up.