Nadal & Djokovic give Santana the blues
What on earth was Manolo Santana thinking?
Here was the Madrid Open tournament director sitting in the front row of the press conference room, stony faced and unnmoved, listening to his number one seed launch into a measured, yet scathing attack on the controversial new blue clay courts.
The process involved in turning the clay blue from its traditional red has made the court feel much slicker.
Novak Djokovic, fresh from a close win over Stanislas Wawrinka and warming to his theme of the week, claimed the winner of the tournament is likely to be the player who doesn't get hurt. He then confirmed that he wouldn't return next year unless the surface reverted to traditional clay.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have both threatened to avoid next year's Madrid Open if the blue surface remains. Photo: Getty
About two hours earlier, an evidently angrier Rafa Nadal had said much the same. It would be like Cincinatti suddenly playing on grass in the build up to the hard-court US Open, he opined.
"The tournament and the ATP can do what they like," he said after his shock defeat to Fernando Verdasco, "but next year there will be one less tournament in my calendar."
Maybe not shocking after a week of negative comments, but an unpalatable thought for Santana and his boss, Madrid owner and promoter Ion Tiriac. Tournament directors spend the year buttering up their star attractions and, while they knew the blue clay would split opinion, they didn't think it would be this serious.
What started as a bit of promotional fun (remember Madrid brought in models for ball girls a few years back, so they have a taste for the eye-catching here) with the aim of assisting spectators and TV viewers to better spot the yellow ball, has escalated into a major row and potentially a huge problem for the men's governing body, the ATP.
New ATP chief executive Brad Drewett is scheduled to attend the tournament on Friday along with his predecessors Adam Helfant, Etienne De Villiers and Mark Miles. If ever an issue highlights the conflict of interest in the make-up of the ATP - half owned and run by the players, half by the tournaments - it is this one.
Back one of his leading events or protect the grumpy players? If Madrid don't back down, on which side will Drewett fall?
Tiriac and Santana must hope they get a bit of much-needed backing over the next few days.
Tiriac, the enthusiastically leftfield Romanian, hasn't got much wrong during his career as player, manager, politician, businessman and promoter. His innovations don't appeal to everyone but at least he isn't afraid to push boundaries. He just wants to sell the sport of tennis and shouldn't be criticised for that.
Santana, it should be remembered, won Wimbledon in 1966. A Spaniard winning Wimbledon? Widely believed to have coined the phrase "grass is for cows", Santana didn't like it but he conquered it.
"If I managed that", he must have thought this week, "surely Rafa and Nole can master my blue clay?!"
The problem is two fold. First, the court is definitely slippier than last year. At least Santana has admitted this.
Players are struggling with their grip underfoot, recovering from wide positions and the essential technique of the clay-court slide up the court. It doesn't look great. Unofficial spokesman of the tennis underclass, Ukrainian Sergei Stakhovsky, tweeted his belief that it's now the worst court on the ATP Tour.
The second problem is in the players' minds. Those who were against the idea of blue clay from that start are now - surprise, surprise - still against it, and therefore struggling with it. Enjoying it more, it appears, are Alex Dolgopolov, the unconventional Ukrainian who has played some delightful stuff, and Roger Federer who breezed past Richard Gasquet in 58 minutes.
But they play with more air under their feet, lighter around the court. It is the more punishing, heavier style - favoured by Nadal and Djokovic - which appears to have been penalised by this change.
That's why, to be honest, Nadal and Djokovic sounded a bit precious yesterday. Saying they won't come back unless conditions change back to being more in their favour made them sound like spoilsports in the street who want everything their way.
This was not, I'm sure, their intention. Their views will undoubtedly be listened to and Madrid may have to acknowledge that their gamble hasn't worked because when Nadal and Djokovic speak up, the tennis world tends to listen.
I'm just curious to know what would happen if, for example, Dolgopolov wins his first Masters with an exemplary week of floating, attacking tennis - adapting brilliantly to the change of conditions? Will anyone listen to him or, indeed, care?
Regardless of the rights or wrongs, the playing field here in Madrid is suddenly a more level one - ice-rink-level, you could say, and most certainly blue.