Rafael Nadal won, on Sunday, his 46th title on clay, putting him three short of Guillermo Vilas’s record of 49 (a number that the ATP finally corrected just before the Buenos Aires final). This crown, the 65th of his career overall, made him pass Pete Sampras and Björn Borg to be alone in the fifth place of the Open Era for the number of titles.
However, beyond the numbers, the thing that stuck out was the Spaniard’s vivid, and justified, plea to save the clay tournaments, especially those of the Golden Swing.
In a time where the February Latin American events are considering switching from clay to hard in order to attract more top players (Acapulco made that change since last year and the owner of the Argentina Open, Miguel Nido, has been talking about making such a change for some time already), Nadal’s voice cannot not be heard.
“If the Tour starts changing the clay court events to hard, the clay tournaments will disappear”, said the world number three in press following his championship. “I understand the problematic of the clay courts, but in my mind, the Tour calendar must protect historical surfaces.”
And he did not stop there:
“Something is happening on the Tour, which is that people are injured. Something’s happening, and someone has to consider why this continually happens. Someone. Not the players, not the tournament directors. Someone. Those who are in charge, and those who make it possible for our sport to be great and to keep going. And those people have to see not only the tournaments’ facilities, not only the money they can make; they have to think about the players’ health, and not just their health when they are active, but also when they retire. If there are, each time, more tournaments on hard courts, there will be, each time, more players who will end their career more damaged physically.
“And life after tennis is long (theoretically).
“Personally, when I stop playing tennis, I would like to be able to go and play football or go do other different sports with my friends and family. And to be honest, if there are every time more tournaments on hard courts, I think that this will get more and more complicated. And it seems to me that Latin America should protect the clay courts events.”
A deeper problem
Rafael Nadal exposes a problem which has been an issue for many years now, but also one that is much deeper than the extinction of clay court tournaments.
Over the years, in order to “improve the show”, the ATP, the WTA and the ITF have made the mistake of slowing down the surfaces to a point where rallies of 30-40 shots have almost become common.
This also generates a serious problem when it comes to the physical well-being of the players of either tour. Longer rallies, especially on hard courts, can damage a player’s joints, sometimes beyond repair. Running from side to side, from front to back, on a cement court is extremely taxing on the knees, ankles, hips, and back. And this may also have caused the recrudescence of injuries to the lower body of the tennis players.
For instance, it is not normal that a young player like Bernard Tomic had to undergo hip surgery at 21 years of age. Not normal at all.
Tomic is only an example of how the constant slowing down of surfaces, as well as the proliferation of hard court tournaments to the detriment of clay or grass (another surface which has virtually disappeared, and the tournaments left have been considerably slowed down), is starting to have the reverse effect of what was intended.
Indeed, there is more show when the rallies extend beyond a “one-two punch” type of game like there was in the 1990’s and before. More rallies make the sport more fun to watch than just “serve, serve, serve, a volley here and there”.
However, the excessive slowing down of the surfaces made the play become, at times, overly defensive and tedious to watch for the casual spectators, and is playing havoc with the health of the players and, by extension, the health of the game.
It may seem a little contradictory to say in a time where the players of 30 years and older are having a lot of success. But at the same time, those players will not be eternal, and it would be high time for both tours and the ITF to start thinking of what they have done and the impact that those decisions have been having on the younger generations, those who have not learned to play serve and volley that much, for instance.
Instead of slashing into the tradition of tennis matches in order to shorten them, the governing bodies should consider more variety in the surfaces. Not only would this improve the show, as we have seen at the Australian Open and, just last week, in Dubai, where the surface was faster and the points, more exciting, this would also extend the duration of a tennis player’s career and minimise the risk of important injuries.
This, as Nadal points out, also passes by keeping clay tournaments as they are. Especially in South America.
(Photos: Atu Ruhle for Hans Ruhle Fotografia)
Please note that the translation of Nadal’s words from Spanish is ours and should be reproduced with explicit sourcing of BATennis World and this article.