Winning championships on slow courts, i.e., on clay, entails a blend of
power, finesse, mobility, consistency, and will. Success on fast courts, both
paved and grass, calls for the same qualities but in different proportions.
In fast-court tennis, to offer the prime example, power in serving and in
stroking counts more heavily in determining outcomes than in the clay-court
game, where the speed of the ball is markedly reduced in the bounce. On clay,
although power is certainly valuable, the other dimensions cited above can be
of the same or even greater importance in deciding verdicts. Thus in the
men's pro wars, two distinct populations of stars have emerged: (1) the power
hitters and net artists from North America, Australia, Britain, and South
Africa, raised on fast courts, and (2) the stars of the clay courts,
generally from continental Europe and South America.
We explored this aspect in men's pro tennis in several recent columns. Here,
we further test the matter by looking at the leading stars of the women's
game, namely the Top Sixteen in the current (mid-April) WTA 12-month
rankings. We categorize each player--whether a fast- or slow-courter--by
comparing numerically her career record at the French Open (i.e., on clay) to
her past success in the fast-court Slams, i.e. Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
(We omit results at Australian Open, where the Rebound Ace surface typically
plays intermediate in speed, indeed sometimes on the slowish side.)
We quickly find that the women whose fast-court Slam record most exceeds
their record on clay are the recognized heaviest hitters. The game's
acknowledged biggest servers and strokers are Venus Williams, Lindsay
Davenport, and Serena Williams. These three American superstars likewise
stand out in our data, where they show a combined 82.1% winning percentage at
the fast-court Slams against only 74.5% at Garros. Venus leads all current
pros in her 86.4% winning record at the fast-court Slams, boosted by her
Wimbledon and U.S. Open triumphs in year 2000.
The records of three other, newer stars--Kim Clijsters, Elena Dementieva, and
Amelie Mauresmo, all power hitters--likewise show preferences for fast
courts. The data are thin in these cases, however, as none has yet played in
more than four fast-court Slams. Mauresmo, especially, may be miscast here,
as she recently skipped the hard-court events at Indian Wells and Miami to
work on her clay-court game. She then won the tournament on green clay at
A common characteristic of the aforementioned six fast-courters is their
physical stature. Their average height is 5-11, against an overall average
under 5-9 for the entire Top Sixteen.
Though net attackers are few among the current stars, in the past they were
understood to have an advantage on fast courts. Past superstars Billie Jean
King and Martina Navratilova were ardent serve-and-volley warriors, and their
Slam-winning records indeed argued that the style was most effective on fast
courts. Between them, King and Navratilova won 22 Wimbledon and U.S. titles,
only 3 French. Likewise, recently retired serve-and-volley player Jana
Novotna showed a 77.2% winning record at the fast-court Slams, 73.1% at Garros.
Recognized today as the foremost net artist among the top women is French
star Nathalie Tauziat, who shows a 66.0% match-winning percentage at the
fast-court Slams, 64.0% at Garros.
Tauziat is one of three current Top Sixteeners whose record shows preference
for fast courts but to a lesser degree than among the extreme fast-courters
described earlier. Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova, like Tauziat, have
been slightly more successful on fast courts than on slow. Both Hingis and
Kournikova are essentially baseliners though both show excellent volleying
skills and considerable success in doubles.
Our data plainly define the remaining seven stars as clay-courters. A prime
member is diminutive (5-2) Amanda Coetzer, whose limitations in power are
balanced by excellence in mobility, consistency, and determination. The
group also includes strong-hitting Monica Seles, Mary Pierce, and Jennifer
Capriati, along with veteran Spanish competitor Conchita Martinez and the
archetype clay-court artist, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. At 86.7%,
Sanchez-Vicario has the second-highest match-winning percentage at Garros
among current pros. She has won three French Opens and reached at least the
quarter-finals 13 times in 14 Garros appearances. Tennis fandom is long
familiar with Arantxa's scrappy and tireless performances, her consistency
and retrieving ability, her patience and ability to shift sometimes to the
attack despite her limited serving and groundstroking power.
Capriati's excellent power off both forehand and backhand would seem to mark
her a fast-courter. Her strengths, however, also include good court mobility,
determination and stamina, and consistency--features that complement her hard
hitting on clay, where the slower bounce appears to help her in launching her
heavy artillery. She recently won the Tier I clay event at Charleston and,
earlier, the 2001 Australian Open, defeating Hingis in both finals.
Both Capriati and Seles showed good success at Garros very early in their
careers. Indeed, Seles has the highest winning percentage at Garros, 89.3%,
though the ratio of her clay-court to fast-court success is slightly lower
The player whose clay record most exceeds her record on fast courts is
European star Anke Huber, 5-8, now aged 26. Huber has never won a Slam though
she reached the finals in Australia in 1996. Hers is a seemingly balanced
game, but her winning propensity in clay-court events is seen not only in the
Slam data but also in her 6-3 record last year in clay-court Tier I and Tier
II tournaments, including the German and Italian Opens. In contrast, her
record in fast-court events of the same stature was just 3-5. In addition,
Huber last year won the Tier IV clay-court tournament at Estoril.
We thus conclude that distinctions dividing fast-court and clay-court
performers are indeed present in women's tennis, but they are less clear than
in men's. (None of the Top Sixteen women have career ratios anything like
that of male clay artist Albert Costa, for example, who is 16-7 at Garros,
3-10 at Wimbledon and U.S. Open.) Indeed the two women at the opposite
extremes in our exercise--Anke Huber and Venus Williams--both show good
success in their less-favored realms. Clay-courter Huber once won the grass
tournament at Rosmalen, for example, while clay artist Sanchez-Vicario won
U.S. Open in 1994 and was twice finalist at Wimbledon. Meanwhile fast-courter
Venus trails only four members of our Top Sixteen in her winning percentage
Net-attacking skills no longer seem the critical aspect in determining who
wins in women's fast-court tennis. Instead, sustained power in serving and
stroking, accompanied by physical size, strength, and agility primarily
distinguish today's fast-courters--Venus, Davenport, and Serena--from the
clay-court winners in the mold of Sanchez-Vicario and Huber.
--Ray Bowers, April 26, 2001