Pro tips: successfully changing surfaces

Published by Jelena Dokic

How to successfully transition between surfaces.

Transitioning between surfaces can be one of the biggest challenges in the game. Understanding the intricacies and gaining experience on a range of courts are critical first steps in managing it. Jelena Dokic explains…

The tennis season is very long. We’re on the road competing for 10 months of the year, and sometimes it feels like we never stop. We’re constantly changing hotels, planes, tournaments, weather conditions, countries and the surfaces we play on.

When you see a tournament on TV or even if you come and watch us play live, you would know there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make it all come together. Just as the tournament teams work hard to prepare for the events, we as athletes invest an enormous amount of time in our preparation.

Besides practising and physical work, there are a lot of other challenges that we face every day – and one of them is the number of surfaces that we play on. Nearly every tournament has a different surface. Besides the obvious surfaces like hard court, clay and grass, there is also green clay, which only exists in America.

We might also be playing outdoors as well as indoors. And although some surfaces might look the same, there are many subtle variations in them. This can range from the speed of the court to the bounce that they produce.

I was fortunate to grow up playing on all surfaces. I practised a lot on hard court but the coaches I worked with thought it was important to also practice on grass and clay from an early age. I learnt to use different shots and styles of play depending on the surface and it ultimately made me a better player.

My favourite surface is hard court, especially indoor hard court. I also really enjoy playing on grass as it suits my aggressive game style. My least favourite surface is clay; I find it to be a bit too slow for me, but I’ve still played well on it.

Embrace change
From the earliest stages of my career I’ve competed well on all surfaces – whether it was at junior events in Australia and overseas, on the Challenger circuit or eventually the WTA Tour. I’m proud to have claimed at least one professional title on every surface and can attribute that all-surface ability to the playing experience I gained on all surfaces at an extremely young age. It provides lessons on adaptability and the transition between surfaces.

Those lessons are especially important at a professional level, as we often change surfaces very quickly. At times, we only have two or three days to adapt to the surface that we will be playing on next. Sometimes that process is easier than others; I always found that I needed the most time to adapt to clay.

In some respects, you would think that transitioning to a slower surface like clay would be an easier process, because the ball isn’t coming back to you with such pace, so you have more time to prepare for your shot. However, I also found that because clay is slower, the points were a lot longer. The movement required for clay is also completely different; on clay, you slide a lot more and that takes some adjustments in your footwork patterns – so again, you need more time to adapt.

New surface, new challenge
The other element to clay is the physical impact. While there is less pounding on your feet, legs and back as there might be on a hard court, clay is tough in a different way. Because it’s slower, the points tend to be longer, the matches are longer and it’s a lot more physically demanding.

There is also a lot more running on clay – you have to cover more court than on a hard court or grass. It takes a toll on your legs, especially your groins and hamstrings. Even your upper body has an additional toll, due to the extra balls you have to hit on clay. Your shoulders, elbows and wrists can become stiff or sore.

After the clay court season, we move onto grass. These surfaces couldn’t be more different; while clay is slower, higher bouncing and more physically demanding, grass is fast and low bouncing. The points are much shorter but your reflexes and reactions have to be extremely sharp. Grass is faster but is also quite uneven as a surface, meaning that you’re also managing bad bouncing balls.

I find that grass is very soft, which means there isn’t as much pounding on your body as there is on clay but your body is often affected in different ways. You have to be very low to the ground on grass as you’re constantly bending low to reach balls that sometimes hardly bounce at all. All that bending can create lower back stiffness or soreness and at times is a strain for your glutes and hamstring muscles. It’s therefore worthwhile to do some extra reflex exercises as well as some short, sharp and fast sprints for grass.

For me, the most straightforward transition to manage was the one to hard court. This is the surface that we play on the most and although we might experience some general stiffness and soreness on the lower body when we first return to it, I always find it easiest to manage footwork and movement on this surface. There is a lot of stopping and starting, and you need to get accustomed to harder deceleration and changes of direction. Preparing for hard court also requires strength work.

Give it time
As professional athletes, we don’t always get the time we’d like to adjust to different surfaces, but we do the best we can. Sometimes that means we’ll tweak our schedule or even skip a few tournaments simply to ensure we have enough time to transition from one surface to another. In an ideal world, we’d have a few weeks on a new surface to make sure we are physically and mentally ready for what’s required. Avoiding injury is also a consideration.

While I never experienced major problems transitioning from surface to surface, if I could make the time, I would give myself a week or two to make the necessary adjustments. That was more than enough time to feel good on a new surface. A smooth transition is just one more challenge you learn to manage as a professional player.

Some basic facts about the most common courts:

Hard courts:

  • The most utilised surface at both a club level and on tour, this surface comprises a concrete or asphalt base layered with different materials.
  • Variations in the sand that’s applied to this surface will create variations in the playing characteristics – but generally, hard courts play at a medium speed and produce medium bounce.
  • Hard court is notable for its consistency in both speed and bounce, making it most suitable for players who hit flat and hard.
  • The Australian Open is played on Plexicushion, while the US Open is contested on DecoTurf.

Clay:

  • Red clay (comprising crushed brick and tiles) is the most familiar clay surface to many but other variations are green clay (made of basalt) and grey clay, which is most often found in America.
  • Clay is slower and produces more predictable speeds and bounce.
  • Points are longer on clay – which can also make it more physically and mentally demanding to compete on.
  • Increasingly recognised as a development surface, the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne has eight clay courts.

Grass:

  • Think “traditional” tennis and you’ll often think of grass. It’s a purist’s delight.
  • Grass is a faster surface with a lower (but often unpredictable) bounce, meaning that it can suit big servers (historically you would see serve-volleyers thrive at Wimbledon).
  • The professional grass court season is currently five weeks long, with Wimbledon its crowning jewel. A revamped schedule will see that extended by a week from 2015, with certain grass court events given greater importance in the professional game

This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.

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