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Tennis | More Tennis

© Gallo Images

Tiriac ready to unleash psychedelic balls



Not satisfied with the uproar his blue claycourts have created at this year's MadridOpen, unrepentant tennis promoter Ion Tiriac is itching to unleash his next innovation on the world's top players - psychedelic balls.

Unfortunately for Romanian Tiriac, an extravagantly mustachioed former player who became a billionaire thanks to his salesmanship abilities, he may not get a chance to test out his next idea on the world's top two playersNovak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal.

As the owner of the Madrid Open, Tiriac is constantly striving to keep the tournament in the public eye.

Over the years his stunts such as replacing traditional ball boys and girls with catwalk models raised a few eyebrows but caused no consternation among the players.

This week, however, his decision to dye the traditional red claycourt blue has caused an almighty backlash, with Nadal and Djokovic threatening to boycott next year's event unless the innovation is ditched.

Tiriac remained unmoved on Friday as he outlined his next new venture.

"We are going to improve the ball," Tiriac told reporters at a panel discussion on Friday. "We're thinking fluorescent green or fluorescent orange, which hold light better and work better in contrast to blue clay."

His observation seemed to suggest that there were no plans to abandon the blue clay in 2013 and highlighted the tensions that exist between players resistant to change and administrators striving to widen the sport's appeal and boost sponsorship revenue.

The ATP, the men's tour organisers who sanctioned the switch for this year's edition and whose six-man board is evenly split between player representatives and tournament officials, are caught somewhere in between.

Serbian Djokovic, the defending champion in Madrid, and Spaniard Nadal, the 2011 runner-up, have criticised the courts for being too slippery.

Roger Federer has also expressed his opposition to the innovation, which Tiriac argues makes it easier for television viewers to follow the yellow balls, but has stopped short of saying he will not play next year.

Etienne de Villiers, who was often criticised for introducing changes to the men's tour during his stint as ATP chief from 2005-2008, said he understood why players such as Federer and Nadal were eager to hang on to the traditions of the game.

However, he said that with rival sports fighting hard for the television slots that guarantee millions of dollars of sponsorship income, innovation and change were important.

"If you are going to be a pioneer you are going to have to take risks," De Villiers told reporters.

"Pioneers either go out there and discover gold or they are found face down with a back full of arrows.

"There are always going to be disagreements but you need visionaries and you need change."

VERY SAD

Tiriac and his tournament director Manolo Santana, also joining the panel, apologised for the slippery courts but defended the colour switch, which they said had nothing to do with the surface being excessively slick.

Tiriac explained that the courts, which have to be built from scratch five or six weeks before the tournament, had been pressed too much, which meant the clay was unable to penetrate the hard base.

"I don't have a problem with Rafa or Novak or anybody and I would be very, very sad if they didn't come and play next year," he said.

"The players are right when they say it is too slippery... and I apologise...we are working daily to fix that and things are getting better. There are still three days to go this week.

"But I don't think any player can complain about the colour. It's better for TV, the spectators and the players. And tell me one sport that hasn't had to change in the last 20 years?

"We fight with a lot of sports for that hour of television and that money from the sponsors."

Ex-ATP chief executive Adam Helfant, who gave Madrid the green light to switch to blue clay before he quit the post last December, added: "The ATP has a responsibility to expand the fan base and increase revenue. That doesn't mean the ATP should throw tradition out the window.

"But if you don't try it, if you don't have innovation, you have no chance at all."

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