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Between The Lines
May 1, 2001 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Fast Courts vs. Slow in Top Women's Tennis

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Ray Bowers

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.)

The Fast-Courters

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 Amelia Island.

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.

The Clay-Courters

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 than Arantxa's.

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 at Garros.

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

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


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