Many of the game's top players resent the transition to clay court tennis, but success this Spring is all about the will to fight through tough matches and dirty conditions.
There is something uniquely beautiful about clay court tennis.
In this age of synthetic composites with names like Plexicushion designed to create the optimal bounce, the simplicity of playing on the actual earth is a welcome nuance to the tennis season.
For some players, the onset of the clay court season is a relief, a welcome homecoming to the soil upon which their games were reared. For an ever increasing number of players, though, this season is a depressing, dirty, and altogether sour trek through central Europe.
They come, like cows on ice, to play their power game and hope that if they imagine there is no clay, it will disappear.
This surface forces them to play out of their comfort zone, and in doing so, creates an irresistible combination of brilliance in shot making and something less than brilliance in every other part of the game.
The next two weeks of tennis see the WTA tour shift to the green clay of the American south with tournaments in Amelia Island and Charleston, the first significant clay court events of the year.
This is a benevolent scheduling decision on the part of the tour, providing a several week transitional phase after US hard courts and before the European red clay.
We are in tennis purgatory. The green clay is enough like a hard court that Lindsay Davenport can still have success, but it is enough like a traditional clay court that Anabel Medina Garrigues can give a real scare to Maria Sharapova.
The challenge that clay brings to fast court specialists is where the true beauty lies.
Sharapova has already been on the verge of elimination, and Davenport has been tested as well. They have to adjust their games for this new season and take more opponents seriously. There is a sense, more so than at any other time of the year, that on clay anything is possible.
Even though Miami and Indian Wells are the showcase American events at this time of year, Amelia Island has already provided more compelling stories than those events combined. Who expected Karolina Sprem to come back from a serious arm injury to take out Ai Sugiyama and Daniela Hantuchova and give Davenport a tough match?
Who expected that Alize Cornet would have the most dominant path to the semi-finals? Who expected Amelie Mauresmo to be able to string three wins together after a dismal start to the year? These are compelling stories that will be fascinating to see play out in the coming months. And yet, even through all these surprises, Sharapova and Davenport are winning matches and have made it to the semi-finals. Is this the sign of things to come?
Extra interest may be paid to these early events because, for this first time in years, the clay season is wide open.
For the past several years, it has been a foregone conclusion that Justine Henin will dominate the season and win the French. This year, Henin is not playing top-five tennis, giving anyone a chance to shine and make a serious impact on the tour.
The Serbians may step up and take control of the season, but it could also be someone else entirely. One of the cows on ice could even come to terms with the surface and have some real success. It will surely not be pretty, but winning ugly will be the name of the game this season. The necessities of clay tennis, though, bring out another kind of beauty in the game.
This beauty comes from players having to fight for every match in their worst conditions. There is really nothing like seeing a player endure an impossibly rough match and surprise even herself. That is the beauty of the clay.