Deconstructing The Hard Court
It has been almost 40 years since the US Open made the switch from grass (via three years on green clay) to hard courts, a move that changed tennis for good.
Until 1975, three of the four Grand Slam events – Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the US Open – were played on grass, with the exception being the French Open, which was – and still is - played on the red clay at Roland Garros in Paris.
But after experimenting with green clay to see if it improved visibility for television, the US Open decided it needed a bigger arena than the intimate West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, and so moved to a new venue also in the New York borough of Queens, at the nearby Flushing Meadows, transforming a decrepit area built for the 1964 World’s Fair into a massive complex featuring brand spanking new hard courts.
It was a big change in Grand Slam terms but by 1978, most professional players had become well accustomed to hard courts. The majority of the new public courts in the United States were hard courts and since it was a surface that most recreational players recognised, it was considered to be the perfect fit as US Open organisers looked to take the tournament to the next level.
The Grand Slams may have been late to the party but hard courts have actually been around for a long time and were used in official tournaments as far back as the 1940s, according to the International Tennis Federation.
Typically made of concrete or asphalt, a hard court is often covered with an acrylic top, which offers a little cushioning and smoothes out the surface, offering a bounce far more even than is found on clay and in particular on grass.
As on clay, where the ball reacts to the court, depending on which spin is applied, topspin is very effective. It doesn’t grip the surface quite as much as it does on clay but the ball regularly bounces high and since the proliferation of hard courts, topspin and in particular the topspin or kick serve have become very much the norm, overtaking the slice.
Rallies are longer than on grass but generally shorter than on clay. Flat, hard hitting works well because the surface, usually medium-fast, can be quick, depending on how much sand is used in the top layer of paint.
Slice can also cut through the court and in general, hard courts are considered to be the fairest surface - thanks in part to the true bounce - offering a good balance between attack and defence, between those who look to go forward and finish the point at the net to those who like to hug the baseline and who generally only venture to the net to shake hands when the match is over.
Clubs like them because of the low maintenance required and the fact that the “all-weather” surface dries very quickly after rain, enabling play to resume again with very little delay. The downside is the effect it has on the body and in particular the joints. With very little give in a hard court, tennis players who play regularly on the surface are prone to injuries, with the knees and ankles particularly vulnerable. The top players have somehow found a way to slide on impact but it is easy to jar the body if you don’t get it right.
Hard courts are not all the same, however. The British Hardcourt Championships, which were held in Bournemouth between 1968 and 1983, were actually played on American clay, but were called Hardcourt because at the time, Britain generally only had two types of surface, grass and shale, a loose form of clay. The US Open is played on Pro Decoturf, which is slightly faster, in theory, than the Plexicushion surface the players enjoy at the Australian Open.
But there is no question that hard courts have become the predominant surface for professional tennis. The Australian Open switched from grass courts to hard courts in 1988 and six of the nine Masters 1000 events on the men’s Tour and seven of the nine top-level events on the women’s Tour – the level just below the grand slam tournaments – are played on hard.
Considering that tennis is thought to have evolved from the hard indoor floors of wood or stone used for Real Tennis, it is arguable that hard courts are the sport’s truest surface of all.