Battle of the Surfaces proved nothing

A few years ago, a mischievous colleague emailed me a game that promised to unravel a great many hidden truths about myself, if only I answered each question truthfully.

The game was simple: it put you in different circumstances and asked which fruit you would choose under each of these circumstances.

One had to be very careful about one’s choice as there was a warning that each fruit carried “hidden truths”.

So one played the game and waited a few seconds to learn such truths: “If you have chosen (c) banana, for question five, then it means you are a person who loves bananas; if you have chosen (d) grapes, for question nine, then it means you are a person who loves grapes,” and so on and so forth.

Quite an exasperating little game, but one that came to mind last Wednesday as I watched the extravagantly billed Battle of the Surfaces exhibition match between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Nadal is the reigning king of clay. Federer is the dominant player on all surfaces except clay. He is the reigning Wimbledon champion and has won the title four years in a row now—he is the current king of grass, just as Pete Sampras was before him.

The organisers of this exhibition, played in Mallorca, Spain, decided that half the court would be clay and the other grass. They would have us believe that tennis lovers the world over were interested in seeing who of the two players, and which of the surfaces, was superior.

Exhibition matches are normally played in two sets, even if there is no winner in the end. But, as this was a “first” and “special”, it had to be the best of three sets, meaning that there had to be a clear winner—after all, what would be the point otherwise?

And as if really believing that a great riddle could be solved by this theatre of the absurd, the players went for it hammer and tongs.

But did Federer and Nadal really believe that something of significance could be gleaned from this exercise? Or were they just being good old sporting fellows?

“Who is the best?” was the headline in one local paper the following day; another made much of the fact that Federer lost his service game in the first set when serving on to his favourite surface, and that at some point Nadal also lost a game while serving on to clay—as if the surface the ball was returned to did not matter.

In any case, the ball was always going to be heavier because of the clay particles it picked up.

That this question—“Who is the best?”—was asked at all only magnifies the absurdity of the whole affair. What the final result revealed was that, in a tennis match between Nadal and Federer played on a half grass, half clay court, Nadal won. It was as simple as that.

There was a stage during the match where Federer could have won. It would simply have meant that Federer won. And no, it would not have meant that grass is superior to clay, just as it does not mean that clay is superior.

“Just now one of them falls and injures himself badly and can’t play in the French Open, all because of a stupid exhibition match,” said one of the guys in the pub where I was watching the match.

What he and I knew well was that this so-called Battle of the Surfaces was, to paraphrase one local sports writer, nothing but an event staged for television and the sponsors; corporate greed dressed in pomp and circumstance.

But then another thought entered my mind: Could the powers that be in the tennis establishment be getting tired of Federer’s dominance in men’s tennis and looking for ways to curtail it? If so, was this exhibition a dress rehearsal for things to come?

After all, it is not as if we have never had, in one epoch, a player who was dominant on grass and another who was dominant on clay. During the 1990s, Thomas Muster, like Nadal, went by the nickname King of Clay, while Sampras reigned on grass. We were never subjected to anything like the Battle of the Surfaces during this time.

Perhaps it is because there were also other great players at the time—Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Michael Chang, Michael Stich, Goran Ivanisevic, Patrick Rafter and countless others—who kept things exciting.

Maybe what fills the powers that be with what I can only surmise is foreboding is that, once the clay court season is over, it will be King Federer all the way again. But how can you hold the man’s talent against him?

Here’s hoping the Battle of the Surfaces remains the flippant, ephemeral spectacle that it was.

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