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Tennis ball on a tennis court surface

Types of tennis courts and surfaces

There are four main tennis court surfaces today (with lots of variations in the real world). Clay courts are the slowest and most spin-friendly. Grass courts are the fastest and probably most high profile, due to their construction and maintenance cost (and Wimbledon of course).  Another relatively quick surface is the hard court, which doesn’t seem to favor a particular style of play, but definitely favors injuries. Finally, there are the carpet courts, where most of us mortals learned to play tennis. A quick surface, made of artificial turf and dirt that’s almost as fast as grass, yet cheaper and easier to maintain. But let’s take a look at the different types of tennis courts used in the Grand Slams and the pros that dominate them.

the different tennis court surfaces and their dimensions

Details of a tennis court and its dimensions

Clay courts

Clay courts are not actually made of clay. The materials used are mostly limestone and crushed brick, which allow for the sliding effect. Red clay courts are the norm (in Europe and Latin America), while in the US they have a green type of clay court, called Har-Tru. Clay is admittedly the slowest surface, however it is also the most unpredictable. The conditions of the court change so much during a match, that it takes great anticipation skills to know where the ball will land each time. Players who use a lot of spin and last through longer rallies are favored here.

Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay, is the brightest example. Bjorn Borg is another player who did well on clay. From the younger generation, Dominique Thiem seems to stand out on clay, possessing good top spin, quick feet and the ability to stay in long rallies. On the women’s side, Chris Evert and Justine Henin were very successful on clay. Simona Halep and Kristina Mladenovic did well on clay this year, as they seem to possess the skills that can help them stand out. The Roland Garros is the only Grand Slam that features clay courts today.

The famous Philippe Chatrier clay court of the French open

The most famous clay court in tennis, Philippe Chatrier, Paris

Image by Charlie Cowins from Belmont, NC, USA (Court Philippe Chatrier) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Grass courts

Grass is a surface that can cause the court to change a lot from match to macth and throughout a tournament. As a result, it is high maintenance and the courts are quite rare. On a grass court, the ball tends to stay low, favoring powerful flat shots, speedy serves and good slicing. Grass also tends to be slippery, so in addition to the above, it is not the best surface for long rallies. Grass courts are usually well cushioned, so it’s probably the easiest surface on the body. If you can avoid slipping that is.

Serve-and-volleyers thrive on this surface, as they like to finish points quickly. It’s no coincidence that Pete Sampras dominated Wimbledon back in his time. Roger Federer is also great on grass, as usually it doesn’t take him more than a couple of exchanges to finish a point.  Serena Williams has dominated the grass courts (as every other surface) in women’s tennis recently. Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graff did so before her too. Petra Kvitova and recent Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza also have the game that helps on grass.

Wimbledon tennis court is the most famous grass court in tennis.

The most famous grass tennis court, Centre Court at the Wimbledon

Hard courts

The base of a hard court is usually concrete or asphalt, with a layer of cushioning on top. It is probably the hardest surface on the body and legs, as it doesn’t absorb shock and makes the inevitable jarring dangerous. That being said, hard courts are probably the most balanced of all, hence the surface of choice for both the US Open and the Australian Open. No too quick, but not slow either. The ball doesn’t skid low, but doesn’t fly all over the place as in clay. You can maintain rallies on them, but serve and volley is also rewarding at times.

Case in point, Novak Djokovic –arguably the most balanced player of all time- has dominated the surface in the past. Roger Federer is another example, with his all-court game. On the women’s side, this is probably Serena Williams‘ best surface. Monica Selles and Martina Hingis also thrived on hard courts. Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Johanna Konta and CoCo Vangeweghe might be the next big thing on hard courts.

Hard court Arthur Ashe Stadium is the largest court in the world

The Arthur Ashe Stadium, largest tennis court in the world.

The evolution of the tennis courts

Tennis courts have evolved a lot over the past several years. I suppose mostly to make the sport even more exciting to watch. Indeed, the different materials used on tennis courts might favor a particular style of play against another. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been a “King of Clay” in our days. Yet, as the sport evolves and the pros improve all aspects of their game, it feels that the differences are becoming less noticeable. Andre Agassi was the first to win all 4 Grand Slams on different courts, while many other greats before him failed.

In fact, the legendary Pete Sampras only ever made it to the French Open semi finals. Given that there are 3 currently active tennis players who have repeated Agassi’s achievement (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic), it seems that the differences between the court surfaces are not as great as they used to be. Interestingly enough, only Steffi Graff seems to be almost equally successful on all types of surfaces, holding 6 Roland Garros titles, 7 Wimbledon trophies and a combined 9 Grand Slams on hart courts.

All in all, the courts are an integral part of the evolution of tennis and an important factor to the spectacle viewers enjoy today. Courts that don’t favor longer rallies and exciting exchanges will eventually be “improved” or substituted by the ones that do. “Kings” of clay or grass will become less likely. I’m not sure how much more exciting tennis can be made (particularly the men’s sport, although I am a greater fan of women’s tennis).. But eventually what’s good for the sport and the viewers will, hopefully, prevail.

Tennis court surfaces fastest to slowest

From fastest to slowest, grass courts rank first, hard courts are a close second and clay comes in third. Grass has that slippery surface that adds to the speed of the ball as it lands after a shot. Hard courts also allow for fast and high bouncing balls, depending on their materials. Finally, clay courts are the slowest, yet most unpredictable of all. The new technologies available when building tennis courts make this discussion increasingly difficult. However, the ranking is yet to be seriously disputed and grass reimains the fastest of the tennis courts.

The dimensions of a tennis court

The dimensions of a full blown tennis court are measured in feet, the standard having been set by the ITF (International Tennis Federation). Typically, their length is 78 feet (23.77 metres) and the width is 27 feet (8.23 metres. The court width for doubles is extended by another 9 feet  to reach a total of 36 (10.97 metres). The distance from the service line to the net is 21 feet (6.40 metres) and the net itself is 3 feet 6 inches (1.07 metres) high at its highest and 3 feet (0.91 metres) high in the center. Aside from the dimensions of the court itself, in order for the game to be played efficiently and safely, there needs to be some clear space around it. The overall size is then extended to approximately 120 feet (37 metres) in length and 60 feet (18 metres) in width.

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