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Feet of Clay: Tennis in Latin America may flee the surface

  • FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2016 file photo, Andy Murray, of England, and Juan Martin del Potro, of Argentina, compete at dusk in their gold medal match at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The $50 million venue in suburban Barra da Tijuca is vacant, being run by Brazil's federal government, and needs events. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

    FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2016 file photo, Andy Murray, of England, and Juan Martin del Potro, of Argentina, compete at dusk in their gold medal match at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The $50 million venue in suburban Barra da Tijuca is vacant, being run by Brazil's federal government, and needs events. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Feb. 23, 2017 photo, tennis players practice at the Rio Open tennis tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The days of clay-court tennis in Latin America are numbered. The clay-court circuit lost a major event several years ago when this week’s Mexican Open in Acapulco switched to hard courts. The Rio Open, which ended on Sunday, is almost certain to be next. And it could pull along several smaller clay-court tournaments in Quito, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

    In this Feb. 23, 2017 photo, tennis players practice at the Rio Open tennis tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The days of clay-court tennis in Latin America are numbered. The clay-court circuit lost a major event several years ago when this week’s Mexican Open in Acapulco switched to hard courts. The Rio Open, which ended on Sunday, is almost certain to be next. And it could pull along several smaller clay-court tournaments in Quito, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)  (The Associated Press)

The days are numbered for clay-court tennis in Latin America.

The clay-court circuit lost a major event several years ago when this week's Mexican Open in Acapulco switched to hardcourts.

The Rio Open, which ended on Sunday, is almost certain to be next. And it could signal the end of several smaller clay-court tournaments in Quito, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo.

The so-called "Latin American clay-court swing" comes in February and early March — just after the Australian Open on hardcourts, and just before Acapulco and two well-established hard-court events in Indian Wells, California, and Miami.

"We're in the middle of nowhere," Rio Open tournament director Luiz Carvalho told The Associated Press.

The driving force for change is the new Olympic tennis arena built in Rio for last year's Games. The $50 million venue in suburban Barra da Tijuca is vacant, being run by Brazil's federal government, and needs events. And it's built for hardcourts, not clay.

Carvalho speaks cautiously, but acknowledges he's in talks with ATP President Chris Kermode and the other South American tournament directors about making the move.

"The concept of moving to hard (courts) we all agree," said Carvalho, speaking for the other South American tournaments. Carvalho's long-term goal is to upgrade Rio to what the ATP calls a 1000-level event — like Indian Wells, Miami, and a handful of others across North America, Europe and Asia.

The Latin American clay-court circuit struggles to draw top players. This year, Rio attracted No. 5 Kei Nishikori and No. 9 Dominic Thiem, who eventually won the event.

By comparison, Acapulco has four players in the top 10 this week — and seven in the top 20 — including Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. It also had No.4 Milos Raonic, who pulled out with an injury.

Nadal chose to play in Mexico this season instead of Rio, where has been the marquee draw the last several years.

"Imagine what we could get in Rio if we were playing on hard," Carvalho said. "I think we could get a field as good as Acapulco. Maybe more."

Carvalho said the "ATP doesn't have to be frozen" and needs to change to adapt to younger players.

"We trust a hard-court event would fit better because of the current situation of the tour," Carvalho said. "The next generation is hard-court focused."

Thiem, who has won six of his eight singles titles on clay, sees the change coming.

"The whole tour goes more and more to hardcourt," he said. "Except for Roland Garros and Wimbledon, all the most important tournaments are on hardcourts. If it changes to hardcourts, we'll have to get used to it."

The Rio Open has been played for four years at a temporary clay-court venue set up at Rio's Jockey Club, the city's horse-race track. It's located in the city's most upscale area, and a move to suburban Barra would dislodge the event from the heart of the city.

The event is a joint venture between IMG, the marketing company, and Mubadala, a state-owned investment arm of the United Arab Emirates.

The International Tennis Federation, the world-governing body, wants the Olympic venue used. And the sooner the better.

"The ITF retains the hope that the venue will see world-class events in the future," the ITF said in a statement to AP.

The ATP must approve any change, and it's saying little publicly. In an email to AP it said the 2019 calendar might be a logical place to make any changes, though Carvalho suggested it might come sooner.

"Imagine what we could have here," Carvalho said. "It would be amazing. It makes sense. The region is ready for something big."

But the first move means getting off the clay.

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Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWade . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/stephen-wade