If you have read my work or followed me on Twitter for a few years, you know that I thought Miami should have moved to green clay when it switched venues this year. With Rafael Nadal withdrawing from the BNP Paribas Open on Saturday and giving Roger Federer a walkover into the final, can we see why this move should have happened?
A big part of the argument in favor of differentiating playing surfaces in tennis is the need to require diverse skills on tour. Clay skills, grass skills, hardcourt skills — they aren’t completely different sports, but they are unique stylistic textures and flavors. Creating a diverse entertainment product — a full calendar of tournaments which gives more players a chance to feel they can make a significant imprint on tour — is democratic, inclusive, and simply logical.
All basketball games are played on one surface only: hardwood.
All ice hockey games are played on one surface: ice.
All golf courses are played on one surface: grass… though links golf and tree-lined golf courses do present different challenges to golfers.
Tennis is unique in its ability to feature distinctly different surfaces… so WHY wouldn’t it seek more differentiation?
But that’s just the entertainment angle.
There is another angle I haven’t emphasized as much. It came from Nadal himself (and was amplified in the Twitter thread below) in the hours after his quarterfinal win over Karen Khachanov, which was followed by his withdrawal on Saturday:
Nadal gets criticised for saying this, but it's valid. One of the most dynamic sports, with v high joint stress, is played, for 65% of year, on concrete.
Research on plantar pressure & injuries in tennis by surface:
— Matthew Willis (@MattRacquet) March 16, 2019
The strain involved in tennis is evident to anyone who watches the sport.
I wrote earlier this week — after attending the Phoenix ATP Tour challenger (the Arizona Tennis Classic) — how violent the sport is when you see it up close. It’s not the running itself. It’s the running AND the stopping AND the re-starting AND the reversals of motion, all abrupt and swift for any top player.
That Phoenix challenger is played on hardcourts. Most tennis action is played on hardcourts.
Tennis will still be here in 100 years (unless an asteroid or other cataclysmic event wipes us out).
Shouldn’t tennis want to explore a world more like the mid-1970s, in which various surfaces proliferated? In the 1970s, it’s true that string and racquet technology had not evolved to the point that baseline tennis was rewarded. Nevertheless, a lot of different surfaces existed back then. Why not seek that horizon again, in this new world for the sport? What is lost by trying something new for a few years and seeing what players think about it?
The basic point I wish to reiterate here is that Miami DID have a choice to make. It COULD have gone in a new direction. There was no law or rule saying it had to stick with hardcourts when moving from Crandon Park to Miami Gardens.
That the tournament lacked the imagination to change surfaces is a dreary but predictable affirmation of a romance with hardcourts, likely rooted (at least in part) in a desire to cut costs and not have to spend more money on maintenance of a clay surface.
I won’t keep saying this in 2021 or 2022. I will say it now, though, with the Miami Open about to begin a new existence at a new location in the greater Miami area: The Miami Open blew it.