July 2021
clay courts in tennis

Clay courts in tennis

There are many different types of tennis court surfaces and clay courts are among the most common and most popular. Clay courts vary between red and green colored surfaces. They aren’t actually made of clay, because of the moisture the material tends to hold. Instead, they are made of a thick base of limestone-like materials and cushioned with layers of crushed brick or stone. The cost to build a clay court ranges between $25,000 – $60,000 and this type of tennis court is considered the cheapest to construct. Naturally, location and amenities (such as fencing and lighting) are factors that can influence that figure. The downside is that maintenance costs tend to be higher, as the surface needs to be kept minimally moist and flat. Red clay courts are very common in Europe and Latin America, whereas green clay courts are a trademark of the USA tennis scene.

Characteristics and particularities of clay courts

Contrary to hard courts and grass, there are quite a few things unique to clay courts in tennis. Particularities that can affect the style of play and dictate the skills needed to dominate on that surface.

  1. Clay courts are significantly affected by weather conditions and the actual play. Once you step onto a clay court, you experience an ever-changing surface as the match progresses. Lumps and cavities created during game play cause bounce inconsistencies, making this the most unpredictable of all surfaces. As a result, you need to be more focused and patient to successfully return shots.
  2. As a gritty surface, clay tends to favor spin. Because these courts are generally softer, high-powered flat shots don’t necessarily produce easy winners. Spin can add to the inherent unpredictability and is usually a much more successful shot choice. A good variety of shots and angles is also needed.
  3. Movement on a clay court is also much different, as this is a type that utilizes sliding as an integral part of the game. Among other challenges of learning to play tennis on clay courts, personally, I’ve struggled with letting go and allowing my body to slide to reach balls. But -as much as it sounds counterintuitive to balance and stability- sliding is in fact a big weapon on this type of surface.
  4. Due to the slower feel and unpredictability of the surface, longer rallies are the norm on clay. Therefore, skills like great athleticism, endurance and patience are rewarded. In return, this type of court is much more kind to your body.

How to play well on clay

A tennis match on a clay court can be as enjoyable as the sport gets. The dirt, the beautiful courts, the sliding shots, the unpredictable bouncing, are all reasons that make it a popular surface. At the same time, to play well on clay, you often need to adjust your game significantly.

Clay tennis courts are particularly common in Europe and Latin America. It’s no coincidence that the pro’s clay season mostly takes place in Europe and culminates to the French Open. So, for anyone inspired by the Roland Garros (and Rafa Nadal), here are some tips and strategies that can help you improve your clay game.

Tips and winning strategies for clay court matches

With all the particularities mentioned above, to win a match on clay you often need to change your usual tactics. Here are some tips and strategies that have worked for me:

  1. Focus on your footwork.

On a clay court, you can’t afford to stop your feet from moving. The ball will bounce and change direction –and not only because your opponent is great with spin. Lazy footwork will guarantee that you’re constantly at the wrong position to hit the ball.

  1. Consistently hit really deep balls with top spin.

That’s a given for any type of surface, but it is extremely important for clay. The ball is bound to bounce higher, so landing deep spin-heavy balls will keep your opponent well behind the baseline. Taking away their aggression that way will eventually give you a shorter ball to attack.

  1. Avoid drop shots.

A drop shot can be a powerful weapon on a hard court, when your opponent is busy retrieving a shot at the other end of the court. On clay though, a drop shot will bounce higher, giving your opponent enough time to return for it. Unless executed perfectly, with lots of under spin and just clearing the net, this shot is not your best option on this surface.

  1. Go for a slice or kick serve, even as first serve.

A speedy flat serve is great on any given day, but on clay it won’t be as powerful. On impact with the ground, the ball will lose much of its speed, making it easier for your opponent to return. A well positioned slice serve on clay will move the ball further away from your opponent’s reach. A kick serve will make the ball bounce even higher, going well over their hitting zone.

  1. Improve your inside out forehand.

On clay, you will usually have enough time to get around the ball on your backhand side. That is a great opportunity to hit an effective inside out forehand. Adding some nice spin to that shot, will get the ball far away from you opponent on their backhand side. Even if they get to it, their response will likely be harmless and easy for you to take advantage of.

  1. Try to wrong foot your opponent.

Because of all the sliding and traction on this type of court, it is usually quite difficult to quickly change directions. On hard courts, you feet will “lock” much more easily if necessary, to allow you to swiftly turn the other way. When you see your opponent having selected a side to move towards, try wrong footing them.

Tennis tournaments held on clay courts

Not as many pro tennis tournaments are held on clay compared to the other court surfaces. Clay season typically takes place in spring and all clay events lead up to the French Open. The Roland Garros takes place in Paris and is the only Grand Slam event that is played on clay courts. Here are the most notable tennis tournaments on clay, for the men’s and women’s field.

ATP tennis tournaments held on clay courts

  • Grand Prix Hassan II, held in Casablanca, Morocco.
  • U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships, held in Houston, USA
  • Monte Carlo Masters, held in France.
  • The Barcelona Open, held in Spain.
  • The Hungarian Open, held in Budapest, Hungary.
  • Istanbul Open, held inTurkey.
  • The Madrid Open, held in Spain.
  • The Italian Open, held in Rome, Italy.
  • Geneva Open, held in Switzerland.
  • Open de Nice Côte d’Azur, held in Nice, France.

 WTA tennis tournaments held on clay

  • Charleston Open, held in South Carolina, USA.
  • Copa Colsanitas, held in  Bogota, Colombia)
  • Women’s Stuttgart Open, held in Germany.
  • Marrakech Grand Prix, held in Morocco.
  • Sparta Prague Open, held in Czech.
  • The Madrid Open, held in Spain.
  • The Italian Open, held in Rome, Italy.
  • Internationaux de Strasbourg, held in France.
  • Nuremberg Cup, held in Germany.

Pro tennis players who thrived on clay

Although the term “clay-court specialist” tends to described players who do great on clay only, there definitely have been overall successful pro players who have been particularly good on clay. Rafael Nadal is a prime example, with 52 titles on clay courts out of his total 75. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Ilie Nastase, Gustavo Kuerten, Tomas Muster, Ivan Lendl, Guillermo Villas and Bjorn Borg are among the most notable names who have achieved great success on clay.

If Rafael Nadal is the “King of Clay”, Chris Evert is probably the Queen. Evert won a total of 10 Grand Slams on clay (3 of them while the US Open was held on that surface). Justine Henin, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf have also been extremely successful on clay courts.

Speaking of clay courts, check out some predictions for the French Open this year.

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