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Tennis

Madrid red clay a welcome sight after 2012 left all feeling blue

Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Maria Sharapova has been red-hot on clay and is coming off a win in Stuttgart.

As an issue of worldwide relevance, it falls terribly short. It's not even making the tennis headlines, what with Sloane Stephens questioning Serena Williams' character, Bernard Tomic's father's antics and Jimmy Connors rocking the landscape with his new book.

Still, it's nice to see everyone playing on the good red clay this week.

Last year's Madrid Open became a curious sort of non-event after tournament owner Ion Tiriac installed blue-clay courts without telling the players beforehand. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic both went out early, promising not to return unless in concert with traditional clay. Supposedly a made-for-TV spectacular, Madrid wound up turning off viewers around the globe. And players.

"I think we all know that last year was a very hopeful experiment, and it didn't turn out so well I think for ?? not for the tournament or for the players as well," Maria Sharapova said before this year's event. "I think everyone kind of learned their lesson and we're back to normal now."

And why? Not because blue is such a horrendous color. Not because some of the players found it too slippery. It's because -- at least from this point of view -- there are precious few events on the European clay-court surface and must be cherished. They stand for romance and aesthetics, fans dreaming that one day they'll visit Monte Carlo, Barcelona or Roland Garros in the glory of spring, sipping wine and mingling with the high rollers as the sun goes down.

NGUYEN: Stephens, Tomic get low marks in Report Card

Watching Madrid's blue-clay action on TV last year, I had no desire to be there. I was just fine slogging my way to the refrigerator. It's sort of like seeking out a remote, tropical beach and discovering the sand is black. Not a huge problem, but just plain wrong.

I've always associated clay-court tennis with the dashing Adriano Panatta, the fluid Gustavo Kuerten, the relentless Nadal or the elegant Francesca Schiavone -- all in red-stained outfits at the conclusion of their exotic on-court dance. I wouldn't want blue at Wimbledon (even Tiriac would have to admit that), and it doesn't work on the clay-court circuit, either. For all of his financial success and admirable work with fellow players, Tiriac was a conniving, manipulative player who would stoop to the lowest levels to win. For him to pull a gimmick in Madrid, behind the players' backs, seems entirely in character.

Last year's tournament found people out of sorts, thinking negatively and losing context. Djokovic said it wasn't "real tennis" and stopped play at one point. Nadal was immediately disgusted, even in the wake of his first-round thrashing of Nikolay Davydenko. He felt the clay played too fast, and few could digest the shock of Nadal blowing a 5-2 lead in the third set against Fernando Verdasco and losing to his fellow Spaniard for the first time.

Lisa Raymond said she liked the setting, because it lodged her mindset in a hard-court state. And it's true: Everything about the viewing experience suggested a blue, indoor hard court. It seemed entirely appropriate that Roger Federer and Serena Williams won the respective singles titles (Federer's first on clay in more than three years), for it takes more than an odd-colored court to disrupt their command.

Still, it was nice to hear Nadal claim "the courts could not be better" upon his arrival this year. In a sport known for its constant state of progression, there must be room for tradition.

Federer: Nadal deserved French Open seed bump

Some thoughts on other fronts:

-- I was anxious to read Connors' book, "The Outsider," until I learned how disgracefully he treats Chris Evert. Some things need to remain hushed, forever, and Connors -- still on the rampage, apparently -- blew open a door that should have remained closed. You can find the details of Connors' tacky revelation elsewhere. I feel trashy even approaching the subject. And good for Evert, saying in a statement she is "extremely disappointed that he used the book to misrepresent a private matter that took place 40 years ago and made it public, without my knowledge." She is hardly alone.

-- Nice to hear John McEnroe defending his doubles reputation with partner Peter Fleming, telling Tennis.com, "What people forget is that we played 10 Grand Slam doubles finals and won seven. Before they start telling everyone how great the Bryan brothers are, look at some of those numbers." Couldn't agree more. I'd take McEnroe-Fleming over any pair I've seen. In my mythical tournament, everyone in his prime, they take down John Newcombe-Tony Roche in the final.

-- Long-respected tennis writer Tom Tebbutt makes some great points about time violations in the debut issue of TennisJournal.com. Enough with the endless bounces before serving, he says: impose a six-bounce limit ("more than six and the server is on the way to being a hypnotist"). He also discounts the notion of having an actual clock on court. "It would be better just to have a light on the umpire's chair that turned green when the time between points began, yellow when it went down to five seconds before the limit, and red after 25 seconds. That would be more discreet and manageable, with it remaining the umpire's prerogative as to when to start timing after each point."

-- We need to hear a lot more from Stephens and Williams before making snap judgments on their relationship. Stephens feels slighted by what she describes as a dismissive, cold-hearted attitude on Williams' part, and that's understandable for someone who grew up admiring Williams. But Williams' career isn't over; like so many great athletes, she isn't out to make friends with someone who could threaten her status in the game. I can't imagine it's that personal with Williams -- merely business. And I'd be surprised if Stephens continues her assault. The next match between them, wherever it may take place, will be telling.

Bruce Jenkins is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. You can e-mail him at bjenkins@sfchronicle.com.

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