Tennis’s El Dorado: The stars of clay dance to a Latin beat

While some remain on hard courts, the clay of South America tempts Ferrer, Wawrinka and Nalbandian

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
david ferrer
(Photo: Marianne Bevis)

david ferrer

With barely six weeks’ wear under their hot and tired soles, the men of the tennis tour have already hurtled past five hard-court events and through the year’s first Major, the Australian Open.

But with February comes the first parting of the ways, not only to the disparate corners of the globe but also to new surfaces.

Many players prefer to keep their feet on the hard, synthetic surfaces to maximise their preparation for the first spike in the Masters calendar: Indian Wells and Miami. For them, there is the beating sun of South Africa, Dubai, and Florida or the indoor protection of Zagreb, Rotterdam and Memphis.

But those who fancy a little respite from the punishing hard courts can head for the grandeur of Latin America and take in some of the most exotic cities in the tennis calendar: Chile’s Santiago, Brazil’s Costa do Sauipe, Argentina’s Buenos Aires and Mexico’s Acapulco. This is the Gira Dorado: the Golden Swing.

There’s something about the burnished, shimmering heat rising from the deep rust of a clay court that warms the spirit. The sun, when it shines—as it invariably does in these latitudes in February—applies a deep, glowing colour that makes the skin sing rather than singe. And there are always flowers—flame coloured pelargoniums, orange marigolds, crimson hibiscus—and the scent of herbs and palms and pines.

The home players and their fellow Spanish speakers from Europe have been raised on clay. Indeed nine of the top 10 clay match winners since 2000 have come from Spain or South America. Clay is in their DNA.

Perhaps that explains the special enthusiasm and passion that the Latin fans bring to the occasion. A joyous and intense atmosphere full of gossip and bustle will drop into hushed attention as play begins. They absorb the soundtrack of skidding feet on grit, the scuttering back and forth across the baseline, the shuttles towards the net before, point played, they burst into voice again.

So this is South America’s time in the sun. It’s the time when its sons blossom in the oasis of a single month on the ATP tour, when tennis comes south of the border, not just down Mexico way but to the heart of this great continent.

The first stop is Chile. Many of the big names are resting tired muscles and that allows Santiago to fill its draw with home interest. Four Chileans, five Brazilians and no fewer than nine Argentines make hay while the big boys rest, but this year, it was left to Spain to spoil the party.

Tommy Robredo, still abuzz from his performance against Roger Federer in Melbourne, claimed his 10th title—his ninth on clay—in Santiago’s final set tie-breaker. The win gained him nine places, up to No31, after a tawdry 2010. The former No5, who won back-to-back titles in the Golden Swing of 2009, won just 20 matches last year, his worst tally since 2000.

One of Robredo’s 2009 titles was taken at the next stop in the Swing, the lush and lovely environs of Costa do Sauipe, home of the Brazil Open. Joining him is a brace of fellow Spaniards: top seed and 2008 champion Nicolas Almagro, and No2 seed Albert Montanes.

All local eyes, however, will be on the home favourite and No3 seed, Thomaz Bellucci, beaten by Robredo in 2009’s final. A striking but largely unheralded hero, the quiet Brazilian longs to emulate his Davis Cup associate, the much-loved Gustavo Kuerten. Bellucci won in Santiago last year, but it would mean the world to win the Brazil title this time.

However, aside from Robredo and five other Spaniards playing in Brazil, there is another man in the lower half of the draw who will ring warning bells for the players.

Alexandr Dolgopolov announced his credentials in spectacular form in Melbourne by beating first Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, then Robin Soderling and then taking a set off Andy Murray in the quarterfinals.

This infectious talent from the Ukraine, whose father dosed him with tennis genes and his mother with gymnastic genes, is a bundle of energy who can apply shocking amounts of spin, fire plunging ground-strokes and hits his serve almost before his ball toss is complete. His Oz performance lifted him 14 places to a career-best 32, more than 80 higher than this time last year and not far short of 300 up on 2009.

His play is creative and charismatic but has, until now, been unpredictable. However, this slight 22-year-old is starting to show signs of more self-control and self-belief. How easily he translates to the clay could be one of the top storylines of the Golden Swing.

Another name synonymous with creative, champion-felling tennis is David Nalbandian, who made a dramatic return to the rankings last summer after a year’s worth of injuries. He has jumped from a low of 161 less than a year ago to inside the top 20, and produced one of the matches of the Australian Open against Lleyton Hewitt before illness forced him out of the second round.

Nalbandian got his South American campaign under way in Santiago but went out in the second round. His next event will be played in front of an adoring home crowd, and with an altogether tougher draw on the table.

For with the big 500 event in Rotterdam out of the way, David Ferrer—newly risen to No6 in the world and still enjoying the afterglow of a semi-final finish in Melbourne—bounces into Buenos Aires.

Ferrer beat Nalbandian to win Auckland just ahead of Melbourne, and has shown outstanding form on the hard courts, but his natural home is on the terracotta and he was runner-up in Argentina last year.

For many, Ferrer will be the man to beat there this year – though a particular threat looms in the not-insignifcant form of Stanislas Wawrinka. He has been another surprise package on the hard courts, tearing through the likes of Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick in Melbourne after winning Chennai the week before.

He’s a man reborn, back in the top 15 after a slide almost to 30 only five months ago. Like Ferrer, he will be back on the orange dust that propelled him inside the top 10 almost three years back. Can he translate his growing hard-court success into South American gold?

And so to the big one: the 500 point one: the glamour-of-Acapulco one. The Mexican finale is worth almost $1m and it brings both the men’s and women’s tours to one of their most popular venues, and the site of Ferrer’s eighth ATP title last year.

It will be a treat, with all the best men in the melting pot together: Ferrer, Wawrinka, Nalbandian, Dolgopolov, Robredo and Bellucci. There are even rumours—according to the tournament’s website—of Fernando Verdasco.

Acapulco promises to be the pot of gold at the end of the South American rainbow. But first, sit back and soak up the rays from Costa do Sauipe and Buenos Aires.

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