Anatomy of a clay court

Published by Todd Woodbridge

Novak Djokovic in action at the ATP Rome Masters; Getty Images

For many novices, they look at a clay tennis court and think they’re all the same. But the answer is that couldn’t be further from the truth. Australian doubles legend TODD WOODBRIDGE explains.

When playing on the clay courts of Europe there is an adjustment to be made from tournament to tournament. Different regions and climates mean that courts across Europe can play faster or slower, bounce higher or lower and and be more suited to individual game styles.

The perfect example is the game style of Nadal. His whipping, heavily-spun groundstrokes are a product of growing up on clay in Spain, where the courts are baked hard by the sun – almost like concrete – and with sand thrown over the top, making them slippery which in turn makes it necessary to perfect the long slide and movement he has been so renowned for. Spanish clay allows Rafa to spin the ball hard and create angles that drag the opponent out of the court quickly and makes it hard for them to recover back to a neutral position.

By contrast, the last Masters series lead-in event to Roland Garros – up until recently, anyway – was in Hamburg, a tournament now staged after the French Open. German clay is much heavier and course than its counterparts in the south, more like the crushed brick en-tout-cas that is seen around Melbourne’s suburbs. German weather in the spring is noxiously damp and the courts are designed to hold a lot of water and still be playable, which makes the surface bounce lower and accept slice. The ball almost bites into the court and allows a net player or single-hander to be more effective, and drop shots often work more effectively. It is worth noting that Roger Federer had one of his two career wins over Rafa on clay in Hamburg.

The most enjoyable and luxurious of the European clay courts is French clay and in particular Roland Garros, its talcum powder-like texture making it the easiest to move and slide on – with control – and promoting the purest form of claycourt tennis. It allows for all styles of claycourt play but is very much affected by temperature on the day, and thus how much spin and speed can control points.

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