Smurf jokes and a billionaire’s dream: Where did Madrid go wrong?

Story highlights

Madrid's new blue clay courts have caused an uproar in the tennis world

The brainchild of billionaire Ion Tiriac, it was hoped the color would attract TV audiences

Players complain about slippery surface, with Nadal's shock exit adding fire to flame

After one-year trial, will ATP approve blue clay in 2013?

CNN  — 

It’s been called “something Smurfs would play on,” labeled a danger to players and derided over a lack of consultation.

Madrid’s new blue clay courts have been the talk of the tennis world for all the wrong reasons. But is the furore justified?

After all, isn’t this the same surface – just a different color?

It’s the nature of sports stars to be hyper-sensitive about their office environment. As one British journalist argued, a malfunctioning computer can waste your morning’s work, but a ridge in a tennis court might spell the end of a career.

The sport has undergone some of its most dramatic modernizations in the last two decades. Let’s not forget the uproar when Hawk-Eye, the electronic ball tracking system, was introduced in the 1990s.

But if the controversy over the last few weeks has revealed anything about tennis, it’s that this is a game where tradition still looms large.

Ion Tiriac’s baby

The man behind the blue revolution is Romanian billionaire Ion Tiriac. The former French Open doubles winner and manager to Boris Becker has had a blue bee in his bonnet for a while.

He pioneered the first blue hard courts at his indoor event in Stuttgart – a lead followed by the Australian and U.S. Opens.

Tiriac argues the color increases the visibility of the yellow ball and points to scientific tests proving the contrast is at least 15% better on blue than red.

The fact it’s also the color of Madrid’s major sponsor, Spanish insurance giant Mutua Madrilena, has not been lost on his critics.

A court by any other name

But really, it’s just a color right? According to Tiriac the blue clay court is made exactly the same way as the red, with bricks ground into tiny fragments and spread over the ground in two different layers.

However, in Madrid these bricks are stripped of their iron oxide (the chemical that provides the original color) and then treated with dye.

Tiriac acknowledges the cost is almost double that of the red clay, but says the extra expense is worth it.

He admits that improving the experience for television viewers watching his $10.6 million tournament was a major factor in the switch.

Players see red

So what’s all the fuss about? World No. 2 Rafael Nadal’s shock exit in the third round on Thursday has only added fire to players’ complaints that the new surface is too slippery.