Shifting surfaces: Getting ready for clay

Published by Leigh Rogers

Novak Djokovic mastered the clay in 2016. Photo: Getty Images
As the pros turn their attention to clay, physical and mental resilience become more important than ever – and players of all standards will benefit from the lessons in adaptability that the red dirt provides.

You may have noticed many of the world’s best players posting about clay court training on social media in recent days. With the clay swing officially starting next week, they know that preparation is key.

Sure ‘preparation is key’ is a cliché that coaches readily sprout – regardless of a player’s age or ability – yet it is one that is accurate when it comes to transitioning to clay.

Clay courts present a challenge due to the unique and physically-demanding nature of the way they play. It is a surface where endurance is tested – as well as mental and physical resilience.

How do you prepare to play on clay? An understanding of the surface is important, as it ensures effective training routines and match game plans can be tailored and implemented.

MOVEMENT IS KEY

Ever noticed the professionals sliding on clay? That is because the fine covering of the surface makes it difficult to move on.

The key to success on clay is being able to time the slide and still maintain balance to be able to swing freely through the shot. This is when having a strong core, as well as legs, is vital. This helps players to recover in a position to make the next shot.

On clay it is important to always be ready for that next shot – as the rallies are generally much longer than on other faster surfaces.

Russian Maria Sharapova famously once said she felt like a “cow on ice” on the surface, referring to the unnatural movements it demands. She has since mastered how to effectively move on it, winning Roland Garros twice.

THE EFFECT OF SPIN

Topspin reacts differently on a clay court compared to a hard court. The gritty clay surface means the spin bites more into the court, enhancing the spin effect. This generates higher bounces than the same shot played on a hard court.

Australian Sam Stosur’s kick serve is a perfect example of a shot that is more effective on clay for this reason.

“It does allow me to try and open up the court and then really be able to go the other way and get them running straight off the first shot,” Stosur explains of her biggest weapon, which has helped her win three WTA Tour clay titles and reach the French Open final in 2010.

COURT POSITION CHANGES

Clay courts play much slower than hard or grass courts, making it tougher to out-hit opponents. As the ball bounces higher on clay, players typically retreat deeper behind the baseline to allow more time to set up for shots and take the ball under shoulder height.

This demands greater physical and mental endurance from players, as it forces them to play longer points and concentrate for an extended period of time compared to matches on other surfaces.

World No.1 Andy Murray struggled on clay earlier in his career for this reason. He has since learnt to adapt to the surface and be more patient, as highlighted by his run to the 2016 French Open final.

“It’s very easy on clay to start rushing and making mistakes,” the Brit admitted.

“Last year was definitely my best year on the clay and I think that most years I’ve made some small improvements on it. I like the surface now.

“I don’t come into the clay court season with any fears or worries that I’m going to play badly or I’m not going to be able to move properly.”

MAKING THE TRANSITION

Tailoring practice and your game plan is important moving into the clay court swing according to Australian player Thanasi Kokkinakis.

“On the clay court you’re trying to extend the points, really work the ball over and kind of construct the point better rather than finishing it off as a one-two punch,” he explains.

“The drills and the fitness going into clay changes. It’s similar to like how you would approach a rally – more length, more spin on the ball, more height over the net, kind of being patient and waiting for the right ball. Because on clay it’s going to be tough, you’re not going to get any of those easy points, especially against the good players.”

This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.

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