April 21, 2005, 1:26AM
U.S. CLAY COURT CHAMPIONSHIPS
On the surface, they are major problems
Red clay courts bring complaints; McIngvales likely to try green version for '06 tournament
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Because the players are seeing red, Linda McIngvale sounds resigned to thinking green.
The well-intentioned but pricey and logistically maddening efforts to make finicky French red clay work for the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships at McIngvale's Westside Tennis Club may soon be abandoned. Beset by myriad problems with soft spots that cause dreadful bounces and slick patches that represent a danger to the players, the club is contemplating a major change for the 2006 tournament.
"The ATP has suggested we consider green clay," Linda McIngvale said. "We're going to look at the possibility."
In the past, the exotic red clay, eponymous with Roland Garros and the French Open, has served both the club and the tournament well. But the latest ordeal of changing from the Masters Cup hard court back to the terre battu (literally, "beaten earth") has been a comedy of errors, many of them the unforced kind.
Except nobody's laughing, certainly not the skittish players, McIngvale or the beaten-down Westside grounds crew, which has worked into the wee hours every evening trying to improve the consistency of the playing surface.
Acting as the tournament director herself this year, McIngvale issued a mea culpa, saying: "We know the courts aren't right, and I personally apologize for that. We've set a very high standard for ourselves here, so we aren't satisfied, either. It's important that everybody understands how much it matters to us, and that we're doing everything we can to get them exactly right. We've had our people working all night. I haven't left the club before 3 a.m."
Little outward criticism
McIngvale said she had expected Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean, a first-time participant in the event, to be the most hyper-critical, given his pedigree. Instead, he has been a helpful resource, offering ideas on how to make emergency repairs. Player criticism has, in fact, been remarkably muted — at least for the public's ears — but that has more to do with the affection the pros have for Linda and her husband, Jim, the prominent discount furniture impresario "Mattress Mack."
The pros thought highly enough of the Clay Courts as an event to have voted it one of the two best International Series tournaments on the ATP Tour in 2004.
"They've put tens of millions (of dollars) into this sport," Andre Agassi said diplomatically. "While the court is difficult for all of us, we're also all better off for having them involved with this game. I hesitate to highlight a negative when there have been so many positives."
But tennis is business and business is business. There's not much tennis players loathe more than unpredictability, especially if it's under their feet.
Andy Roddick is as close to the McIngvales as anyone. When he was asked after his first singles match Tuesday if the Gallery Furniture Stadium Court had become at least "acceptable," his reply was, "We played a match on it."
Following his win over Robby Ginepri on Wednesday night, he said: "It was still a factor. But I'm trying to take the attitude it is what it is. You can just try to deal with it the best you can and hope it doesn't affect a crucial point."
There's no doubt the red clay makes for the prettiest backdrop, or that it screams legitimacy because it's the clay of Roland Garros, the Grand Slam tournament every ground-stroking maestro with ochre-stained shoes dreams of conquering before he dies. But the vast majority of American clay courts are green. While they are perfectly fine, they are somewhat drab in appearance.
The McIngvales were lauded for stepping up and sparing no expense for "real" clay when they landed the Clay Courts in 2001. Four red clay courts already were in place. But five more were needed, and the McIngvales brought the Roland Garros experts back to reprise their earlier handiwork.
Maurice Lambri, the man in charge of the project for the company, Supersol, and his men lived here for weeks. Fifty-two containers full of limestone subsoil and hundreds of bags of the crushed brick clay had to be shipped from France to the Port of Houston. Then, when the first conversion from the Masters Cup cement back to clay was necessary, the Supersol team returned en masse.
But this year the gents weren't able to come, McIngvale said. So Westside tackled the job in house, and things went badly from the beginning.
"It's a very complicated process," McIngvale said, "much moreso than the green clay requires. We have some of those (courts), too, so we know."
The red clay also hasn't been the star magnet the McIngvales had hoped as none of the super-elite European clay-court specialists have yet deigned to play Houston.
"We're not getting players because of the red clay, so it's probably time to rethink what's best for us and for the tournament," McIngvale said.
Which isn't called the U.S. Men's Red Clay Court Championships.