Thursday, June 3, 2010

French Open FYI - The Red Clay Is A Needed Disguise

Here's a great article from the NY Times that I cut and pasted here because I love the French Open and the red clay they play on. There's an art form to keeping clay courts at its best for tennis play, as you'll read and see here. Do watch the French Open Finals, women's - Saturday at 9am on NBC 10, and men's - Sunday 9am on NBC 10. Its great tennis, enjoy!!!

New York Times Article - May 31, 2010 - John Branch

PARIS — It really is not red clay. The famous courts of the French Open are white limestone, frosted with a few millimeters of powdered red brick dust. This was evident as Bruno Slastan, second in command of court maintenance at Roland Garros, scraped the surface of Court Suzanne Lenglen with his shoe. With a few swipes, the reddish powder gave way and revealed a firm white base below. (See the profile of what makes up this red clay surface in the picture to the right)

The “brick broken,” as Slastan, a Frenchman, gamely explained in English, is a cover-up, applied for three reasons. It keeps the otherwise white courts from blinding players and fans. It allows the players to move and slide. And it looks cool. In other words, the beauty of the Roland Garros courts is only skin deep.

It is created by a powder with the look and feel of ground cinnamon. For 20 euros (about $24) at the souvenir stands, fans can buy a flacon de terre battue — a glass, bell-shaped flask filled with a few ounces of pulverized brick from a factory about 60 miles north of Paris.

Roland Garros estimates that it uses 99,000 pounds of the crushed brick each year on the courts. All those tons are spread to about the depth of a tenth of an inch across 20 courts. Each of the courts, including the surface surrounding them, measures nearly 10,000 square feet.

Every morning during the tournament, the courts are dusted again, ever so lightly. Much of it ends up in that night’s laundry, especially on the players’ socks. But the crushed brick is just deep enough to allow footprints and, quite helpfully, ball marks. It is shallow enough not to make the court too spongy or slippery, or to allow all of the powder to accumulate into tiny piles that could affect the way the ball bounces.

“With one millimeter, if you slide, you see the white limestone,” Slastan said. “But with a few millimeters, you don’t see the white limestone on the television.”

Before matches and between sets, a couple of workers smooth the red surface by dragging rectangular swatches of chain-link across the surface, a quick fix commonly used on baseball infields. Other workers hurriedly sweep the dust from the white lines. The result is a satisfying dress-up, like a just-vacuumed carpet.

By the end of a set, the baseline areas are trampled from the foot traffic. There is a worn line on either side of the net where the ball boys and girls zipped back and forth. The space between the net and the baseline is a Pollock rendering of the recent action.

Tennis began as a lawn game in England. But in warmer, drier climates, grass courts are not practical. “It’s too hot,” Slastan said. “In England, it is raining very long.”

Most courts at Roland Garros are constructed of several layers of materials, about three feet deep. Most of that is filled with small stones topped with smaller gravel. (The two main show courts and three other courts are built on slabs of concrete, topped with a thick layer of sand.) The base is topped with a six-inch layer of volcanic rock and three inches of porous limestone.

Drainage is the reason play after a rain delay can begin just minutes after the tarps are pulled. “All clay courts are different,” Venus Williams said. “None play the same. This one plays the best.”

Each April, a tractor churns the limestone, like plowing a field. The limestone on Court 11 has been there 20 years, Slastan said, but the other courts received fresh limestone about 12 years ago. Over time, it takes on a pink hue as it mixes with what is left of the previous year’s crushed brick. The courts are pressed back into shape with rollers and exacting planes. For a day, they are white.

But about a ton of the crushed brick is pressed onto the surface of each court with rollers, then drenched in water. The process is repeated several times until a thin, compact layer of red frosting tops each court.

Lines are measured and scraped out of the red surface, down to the limestone, and then painted white with the same type of thick paint used on roads. Getting all the courts ready takes about a month. When the French Open begins, four workers (six on the show courts) are assigned to the care of each court.

At the end of each day’s play, the courts are doused in water, then covered for the night. The limestone can dry and crack if allowed to simply bake day after day, Slastan said. During the first few days of this year’s French Open, the courts were dry and played fast, but rain and cooler weather slowed the action.

Early each morning, long before the crowds arrive, 55 pounds of crushed brick, packaged in a plastic bag like topsoil, is spread evenly around the court. The courts were pristine and ready on a recent morning.

A couple of players and coaches came to practice at Lenglen Court. Slastan spotted an enemy of his handiwork a specific style of shoe that, he said, scrapes the court’s surface more than others. He watched with a bit of resignation as the players dug up his handwork.
“They attack,” he said.