Sayonara North America hardcourts. Hello, European clay. For the Americans, it’s a time of anguish, when even such simple matters as making a phone call or ordering dinner exacerbate the tensions of playing on a less than familiar surface. For Europeans and, to a great degree, South Americans, it’s a homecoming, an exit from the concrete cacophony of the U.S. and a fond return to multiple languages, the Euro and, best of all, rich red clay.
There once was a time when this switch was even more pronounced, as net-rushers such as Pete Sampras, Boris Becker or John McEnroe had to brace themselves for longer baseline struggles. But as we all know, contemporary tennis is mostly played from the baseline.
So what are the telling factors that make clay paradise for some and a living nightmare for others? As always in tennis, the big concept here is movement. But on clay, that’s something different than what we’re used to seeing on hardcourts. The true bounce of a hardcourt makes it easy for players like James Blake and Mardy Fish to more accurately gauge the bounce and location of the ball. Blake, for example, is a fantastic runner, able to track down just about any shot.
But the slipperiness of clay demands something else. “Balance and recovery are critical,” says Lynne Rolley, former head of coaching for the USTA and currently director of tennis at the Berkeley Tennis Club. “You’ve got to have the confidence that you can adjust — and do so constantly.”
This will explain, for example, why despite their seeming similarities, Sampras and Roger Federer are quite different on clay. Raised on Southern California hardcourts, Sampras’ game was predicated heavily on offense and his ability to take balls early, generate tons of his own power, and be rapidly in control of the point. But on clay, that’s less important than staying balanced and primed for the invariable next shot — a defense-offense yin-yang that’s the cornerstone of Federer’s game. Added to this is the fact that Federer takes good, long swings at the ball — the kind of swing that’s effective at generating pace rather than redirecting it in the manner of such counterpunchers as Federer’s fellow Swiss Martina Hingis and Australian Lleyton Hewitt.
In large part, Americans are taught a brand of tennis that’s exceptionally linear. Head to junior clinics, tournaments and college practices and you’ll see balls being struck hard, clean and deep, often with swings that borrow pace from the fast bounce of the hardcourt. While it’s certainly an effective brand of tennis, contemporary American hardcourt tennis is exceedingly narrow, limited in texture — that is, diverse applications of spins, pace, depth, height, and angles.
“You can make the court bigger on clay,” says Rolley. “And you have to have it in your mind that it’s good to hit more angles and loops.” Of course in America we often disparage such eclecticism as “junk,” a backhanded compliment that invariably leads to neglect.
So while Americans often come to clay hoping to shove a square peg in a round hole, reigning French Open three-peaters Justine Henin, Rafael Nadal and a host of others grasp the essential dirtiness and even sensuality that accompanies this raw, natural surface. There might be 4.5-5.0 with better form on their slice backhand than Nadal’s improvised one-hander, but the point is that he’s willing to spice up his matches with this shot and generally keep his opponents off balance.
“On clay it helps to be an annoying competitor,” says Rolley. Picture the way Henin throws in topspin forehands, slice backhands on her way to building a point and you’ll get the idea.
Of course there have been clean-hitting Americans who’ve done well on clay. Andre Agassi confessed that he never learned how to slide — and only late in his career did he become a particularly good mover — but the upside was that he struck the ball so hard and deep that he could force his opponents on their heels. Then again, Agassi has the greatest forehand-backhand combination in tennis history — and he’s also supremely confident. That ability to drive through the court, coupled with fine movement, is the key to Novak Djokovic’s claycourt hopes.
In contrast, another superb American ballstriker, Lindsay Davenport, has never quite competed with the self-belief that she’s got the goods on clay. Far more than Agassi, though, Davenport has been hindered by her lack of agility and ability to improvise. And while the Williams sisters possess superb court coverage skills, they too often take too many big steps and even bigger swings to feel as comfortable as they are on other surfaces. That said, Serena beat Venus in the finals six years ago by superbly mixing patience and attack.
The final factor is weather. No other surface is more impacted by sun, clouds and wind — elements that literally alter the way the clay plays. Andrei Medvedev took the first two sets of the ’99 Roland Garros final largely because his flat-hitting ground game was quite comfortable in thick, overcast conditions. Sampras’ one-off run to the ’96 French Open semis was aided by warm weather that made the court much faster than in previous years. Day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute, competing on clay requires supreme emotional, physical and mental flexibility.
Joel Drucker is a writer for TennisOne, see more of his opinions at TennisOne.com.
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