Blue clay controversy builds in Madrid

Players will step onto the untried blue clay courts of the ATP-WTA Madrid Masters from Sunday, with serious doubts and some hostility as preparations for the French Open are fine-tuned.

King of clay Rafael Nadal, who set records in his last two tournaments with an eighth straight trophy at Monte Carlo and a seventh from eight appearances in Barcelona, has been among the most outraged in the Spanish capital.

After training on the courts which are the marketing brainchild of the tournament's billionaire impresario Ion Tiriac, Nadal was even more upset than he had been before trying them out at the Caja Magica complex in the south of Madrid.

The world number two blamed the ATP for accepting the never-before-seen clay colour as the event prepared to get under way.

"I trained on it yesterday (Thursday) afternoon and I think it's a mistake -- not by the organisation but by the ATP," said the irate Spaniard on Friday at a sponsor event.

Nadal also told Spanish media: "Madrid is one of the best tournaments in the world and does not need this. It is played at altitude. That makes it different already. I appreciate the idea but it should have never been allowed."

The controversial change was approved last year by outgoing ATP president Adam Helfant, who did not renew his contract after three years in the job.

The tournament leads into the Rome Masters starting May 14, which is the last major event before Roland Garros.

Novak Djokovic, the world number one, won both titles a year ago at the expense of Nadal.

The Serb will take the top seeding ahead of Nadal and third seed Roger Federer, with Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga replacing Andy Murray as fourth seed after the Briton pulled out Friday with a back injury.

Djokovic has joined in with lesser criticism but much scepticism about the blue courts, while Federer, who is ATP Player Council president and usually a hard-core traditionalist, is taking a fine line as to his opinion.

"I find it sad to play on a surface the players don't accept," said the Swiss. "It's said that a player like Rafa, at a tournament in his own country, has had to fight against a surface that he does not want to play on."

The men's draw will be missing veteran Americans Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, with both withdrawing. Roddick has a right hamstring problem while Fish says he has been dealing with an unspecified health threat for six weeks.

The women's field is headed by top seed Victoria Azarenka and number two Maria Sharapova. Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, the holder, takes third.

Sharapova won the Stuttgart clay event last week over Azarenka after losing two major finals to the Belarus player this season.

There does not seem to be as much despair among the women about the new clay. "It's a little different, the blue is unique," said Sharapova. "Obviously that's what the tournament wants. To be unique, different. It's pretty cool."

Seeds

Women:

Victoria Azarenka (BLR x1)

Maria Sharapova (RUS x2)

Petra Kvitova (CZE x3)

Agnieszska Radwanska (POL x4)

Samantha Stosur (AUS x5)

Caroline Wozniacki (DEN x6)

Marion Bartoli (FRA x7)

Li Na (CHN x8)

Serena Williams (USA x9)

Vera Zvonareva (RUS x10)

Francesca Schiavone (ITA x11)

Angelique Kerber (GER x12)

Ana Ivanovic (SRB x13)

Dominika Cibulkova (SVK x14)

Jelena Jankovic (SRB x15)

Maria Kirilenko (RUS x16)

Men

Novak Djokovic (SRB x1)

Rafael Nadal (ESP x2)

Roger Federer (SUI x3)

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA x4)

David Ferrer (ESP x5)

Tomas Berdych (CZE x6)

Janko Tipsarevic (SRB x7)

John Isner (USA x8)

Gilles Simon (FRA x9)

Juan Martin del Potro (ARG x10)

Nicolas Almagro (ESP x11)

Gael Monfils (FRA x12)

Feliciano Lopz (ESP x13)

Richard Gasquet (FRA x14)

Fernando Verdasco (ESP x15)

Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR x16)

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