The Clay Surface
For as long as anyone can remember, the European spring has meant clay-court tennis, when the mudlarks of the tennis world have their moment in the sun. It’s a chance to show their wiles on a surface that all top players agree is the biggest test of a player’s ability, tactical nous, variety, patience and physical fitness. But why clay in the first place, and why is it such a challenge?
Until late in the 19th century, tennis was exclusively played on grass and though there is some dispute as to the first example of when it was first played on clay, it seems that an Englishman, the seven-time Wimbledon champion William Renshaw, may have been the man responsible, thanks to a spot of improvisation.
‘At the end of the 19th century, William Renshaw was giving tennis lessons on grass courts in Cannes, but due to the sun, the grass tended to burn and lose its lustre,’ an article on RolandGarros.com says. ‘To protect the grass, Renshaw decided to cover it with a thin layer of red powder which was obtained from grinding down rejects from the clay pots manufactured in the town of Vallauris in the south of France. And thus, the clay court was born.
What we now know as ‘clay’ is actually made up of a number of different substances. At the French Open, the biggest clay-court event of the lot, red brick dust, crushed white limestone, a coal residue called ‘clonker’ and crushed gravel are combined to make the red clay surface so well known in Paris and across Europe.
A European ‘red’ clay court is generally slow, the slowest surface in the sport, on which the clay grips the ball and slows it down. At the same time, the court is more receptive to spin, so players who use heavy topspin can make the ball rear up and bounce higher than on other surfaces. In the United States, a different form of clay court known by its trade name ‘Har-Tru’ is commonly used, with the crushed basalt resulting in a slightly faster, harder surface, but one that many players find very difficult to move on.
Think clay courts and the mind wanders to images of the likes of Novak Djokovic sliding into his shots, timing the slide perfectly to hit the ball on the stretch but immediately beginning his movement back to the centre of the court. The best clay-courters make sliding look easy but others can look all at sea, skidding through the ball and battling to stand up. Maria Sharapova, the two-time French Open champion, once described her movement on clay as being ‘like a cow on ice’.
Understandably, those players who grow up on clay have a big advantage. Because the surface slows the ball, there is a greater necessity to create your own pace, one of the most difficult things to do. But even for those for whom clay is a rather strange surface, playing on it can build strength for later in the season, the extra kilometres in the legs setting them up nicely for grass and hard courts.
No other surface requires more tactical awareness than clay, quite simply because the reduced speed of the ball means longer rallies and longer matches. Whereas on grass or the quicker hard court surfaces, players can tee off in the expectation that the court speed will help them hit winners, on clay, there is more of a need to work for a point from start to finish.
As Italy’s Francesca Schiavone mentioned during a WTA video made in 2011, when she was the defending French Open champion: ‘It’s tough. Every point is longer. You have to use much more the tactics, and logic'.
Rallies are longer, points are tougher and matches generally last longer than on other surfaces. The influence of the serve is negated somewhat by the slowness of the clay, and groundstrokes, particularly a big forehand, are usually considered vital to success. With the ball bouncing high, strength is crucial to hit shot after shot from above the shoulder.
There can be no doubt that fitness is a bigger issue on clay than any other surface but just because it is slow doesn’t mean that playing on clay is purely a battle from the baseline. It also requires patience, variety and imagination.
As Rafael Nadal – who has won more titles on clay than anyone in history – has shown, net play is important, too. Nadal has used a monster forehand to great effect over the years but he also hits plenty of drop shots and angles and is not afraid to finish points at the net.
William Renshaw would surely be proud of the effects of his bit of improvisation.