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Surface "Tension"

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in August. For some, this is the end of the outdoor tennis season. There are probably many of you who are considering finishing off the season with a tournament or two. Inter-club Championship, USTA tournaments (some for every NTRP), and the independent, local tournament may be in your sights. In many instances, playing tournaments will force you to compete on a somewhat or very different playing surface.
So, this month's column is dedicated to helping you prepare for the change(s) in playing surfaces you may experience in your quest for victory.
Before beginning, I must state that there is no substitute for practicing on the actual courts upon which you will play! The pros on both tours want to get as much time on the actual tournament courts as is possible before they begin competition. Unfortunately, many non-professional players never take the time to do this kind of acclimating practice. Sometimes, practicing on the tournament courts in advance of competition is just not viable. Still, try to find courts that are as similar as is possible for your pre-tournament practice sessions.
Not surprisingly, courts can be divided into three principle categories: fast, medium and slow.
Fast courts include grass surfaces and most indoor carpet surfaces. However, older hard courts (particularly if they have not been resurfaced) can be extremely fast. The same is true for most indoor hard courts. Indoor hard courts do not need to be resurfaced as frequently as outdoor hard courts. Sun, rain, snow and other elements take their toll on outdoor hard courts. Consequently, many if not most indoor hard courts are on the fast end of the spectrum. One rare surface is clearly fast, and this is wood. I have only encountered an indoor facility in NYC that had a basketball-like surface. Believe me. These indoor wood surfaces are extremely fast.
Medium courts are more often than not hard courts or Har-Tru brand clay courts (green clay). If the hard court is relatively new with respect to being resurfaced, it will probably play at a medium speed. Har-Tru, when properly maintained, is a medium to somewhat slow surface outdoors. Indoor Har-Tru courts generally play a bit faster.
Slow courts are primarily comprised of red clay surfaces. A hard court that is newly resurfaced can play very slow, if the surface has been imbedded with "grit." By adding a sand-like substance to the outer most surface, the court can play very slow. Of course, over time, this "grit" will get worn down and the court will probably move more to the medium end of the spectrum.
What is the real speed of the courts? This is why practicing (at least a bit) on the actual surface is so important before competition. When I coach collegiate tennis, I would always go and hit with my players on the surface upon which we would be competing. I wanted to know first-hand what the court speed was like.
If you can't actually play on the tournament courts, at least try to ascertain from those who have what the surface speed may be. Choose carefully whom you ask. I have had those potential competitors who seemingly deliberately gave me false information.
It is more difficult to move from a slow surface to a fast surface than it is to move from a fast surface to a slow surface. If you practice at a club that has red clay or slower Har-Tru and you intend to compete on hard courts that are fast, you need to spend at least a full week practicing on the fastest hard courts you can find. Conversely, if you are practice on grass or a very fast hard court, you can usually get used to playing on clay or a very slow hard court in a matter of a few days.
Medium speed surfaces are hard to find. Many club pros or others will describe their court surfaces as medium speed. It has been my experience that there are really very few medium speed surfaces. They do exist, but they are rare.
Clay surfaces and grass courts are natural surfaces. Natural surfaces always present the potential for bad bounces. One needs to really focus on the ball as it bounces. In addition, natural surfaces can change significantly given temperature and weather.
Clay surfaces slow down significantly when they are moist. Grass surfaces become very "skippy" and unpredictable when wet. Dry clay courts can be very "skippy" and the speed of the ball increases. Grass courts when too dry are just a nightmare. One part of the grass court can play completely differently from another portion of the same court.
No two natural surface courts are the same! Watch matches at Roland Garros and at Wimbledon. Though every effort is made to "standardize" the various courts, players will tell you that every court is unique. Even hard courts at the same facility can vary a bit, but probably not significantly.
Let me put forth some final notes about court speed. The higher the altitude the faster the ball will travel. When I went to Arizona to play a tournament, the altitude greatly increased the speed at which the ball traveled. Hotter days usually mean faster balls.
However, heat alone is not at play here. Humidity must be considered. The more humid the day, the slower the ball will travel. When I have trained in Florida the combination of heat and humidity usually offset each other... at least to some degree.
Hard courts that have been patched and repaired are unpredictable. Realistically, resurfacing hard courts is not an inexpensive proposition. So, many clubs, public facilities, schools, etc. will stretch their budget by patching cracks. The patch is always better than an exposed crack, but the patched areas always present unusual bounces.
Bounce height varies from surface to surface. Apart from court speed, how high a ball bounces can vary greatly. Red clay, Har-Tru and gritty hard courts usually present balls that bounce rather high. Here again, weather can affect the bounce height on natural surfaces. Generally, the wetter or moister the court is the lower the bounce of the ball.
Grass courts and carpets usually result in a ball that just doesn't seem to bounce up at all. Whenever I play on grass, I find that my already battered knees hurt more than is normally the case. Why? Well on grass, I have no choice but to bend down with my legs to stroke the ball. Frankly for me, the rule on grass is simple. "Never let the ball touch the ground." Serve/volley and chip/charge are the order of the day for me when I am playing on grass.
Carpet surfaces (almost always located indoors) are also fast and present a low bounce. However, one peculiarity with carpet is that you don't hear balls bouncing. Whether we realize it or not, hearing plays an important role in the timing of our shots. Carpet surfaces take this sense information out of the equation.
Spin is intimately connected to surface. As an offshoot of the surface's tendency regarding ball height, spin becomes particularly important. All surfaces allow for flat, slice and topspin shots to have their place. But, some surfaces benefit more from certain spins.
Use flat and slice shots and serves on fast surfaces. If you have a huge serve, you are going to love fast surfaces. If you are looking for the best second serve on a fast surface, the slice serve usually pays dividends. On grass, carpet or very fast hard courts; don't hesitate to slice your backhand. The "skippy" nature of these surfaces and the lower bounce make slice the spin of choice. When hitting the forehand, don't hesitate to be the "big banger." Hit out with a flat shot that clears low to the net. Yes, these are a bit risky, but believe me; your shots will feel very "heavy" on your opponent's racquet. Topspin groundstrokes and kick serves should be minimized. Normally, they simply put the ball in your opponent's strike zone.
Use topspin and kick serves on slow surfaces. Red clay, Har-Tru and gritty hard courts beg for topspin. Balls will bounce very high on these surfaces and the topspin will make the ball literally jump up. The big, flat serve on these surfaces is normally a waste of precious energy. You won't be serving many aces due to pace, but you may get a few because of placement. Personally, I use the kick serve as both my first and second serve on these slow surfaces. I find that I have few, if any, double faults. In addition, I am wearing my opponent down little by little because he has to return serve with his racquet up high. Over a match, this higher return actually fatigues the player.
The nice thing about medium surfaces is that everything goes. Slice, topspin, big flat serves, kick serves, slice serves... virtually every stroke in the book has its place on the medium speed surface. The unfortunate thing is that they are fairly hard to find!!!
Footwork is more critical on natural surfaces. Hard courts generally allow a player to move in a natural and consistent manner. Natural surfaces do not. Clay surfaces allow a player to slide as she/he executes a groundstroke. However when coming to the net on a clay surface, footing is much more difficult. Long coast-to-coast rallies are the mainstay of clay court competition.
Grass is usually very slippery. Indeed, when playing on grass, you need to wear a special "dimpled" shoe. These are special order items. But, I assure you that no one plays Wimbledon without these "dimpled" soles. Side-to side movement on grass is more difficult than forward movement. This is why you see so many players fall when playing Wimbledon. On grass, this forward movement advantage is just another reason for serve/volley and chip/charge play.
Carpet can be slippery! Most carpets are not reconditioned as frequently as they should be. So over time, they develop spots that can actually be quite treacherous. Like grass, side to side movement on carpet is usually more difficult than forward movement.
Matching the right ball to the surface is important. Not all legal tennis balls are the same!!! Most ball manufacturers have models that are specifically tailored to the surface. Unfortunately, most tournaments don't take this into consideration when selecting balls for competition. So, I advise that you know the type of ball that will be used and practice with this brand/model for at least a week before the tournament. If you can find a practice surface that is similar or identical to the tournament surface, adding the same ball will help immensely in your match preparation.
Don't change grips, change court position and body position. In the modern game of tennis, the semi-western and western forehand grips are most common. However, these grips are not the best for fast, skippy surfaces where the ball stays low. The temptation is to alter the grip and/or stroke to compensate. My advice is to bend lower and move back a bit in this specific situation. Why? Well, the lower body position and "deeper" court position when making contact will allow your timing and strike zone to remain in place. Conversely on slow surfaces that offer a high bounce; these forehand grips are actually an advantage. In these situations you won't need to bend at the knees much, especially if you move forward a bit on the ball. These actions will allow for contact with the ball to be made at a very comfortable level.
Fast surfaces reward aggressive play. Big serves, powerful groundstrokes, net rushing and punishing put aways usually pay big dividends on fast surfaces. Of course, you may need to block your return of serves until you get a bearing on your opponent's serve. But apart from this, the big banger, aggressive player should go for it on these surfaces. The way to keep everything together is to realize that the only real change that is necessary involves the backswing. Just shorten the backswing on groundstrokes and you can play as aggressively as you want. Don't think when playing on fast surfaces. Simple react!
Slow surfaces require patience, endurance and a bit of thought. The basis of play on slow surfaces is the backcourt rally. It is really tough to hit outright winners on slow surfaces. Big serves probably don't result in aces. It is tough to charge the net without being passed. Put aways are not as likely on clay and gritty hard courts. Here, the retriever who is patient prevails. Be prepared for longer points. Here, the goal is to be more consistent than your opponent. Let him/her make the errant shot. Try to break the rhythm of long rallies by changing spins or by moving the opponent in/out. The side-to-side nature of slow court play makes the deep lob followed by the short dropper a great combination. If you are a heady player or a pusher, you are on your best surface. If you are a big banger who hates pushers, you need to realize that this surface makes you and your opponent equals. If you are the big banger type of player, don't hesitate to hit most of your shots deep into the center of your opponent's court. Generally, you will be able to get to any potential reply... including the drop shot.
Baseline position is critical given the surface. More often than not, it is wise to stay close to the baseline on slower surfaces and a bit back on faster surfaces. But, these are just starting points. If you find yourself falling behind on an unfamiliar surface, simply try to move closer to or farther from the baseline when returning serve and/or rallying. Simple trial and error will tell you which way to go given your natural movement and strokes.
String tension should be tailored to the surface. The faster the surface, the tighter your stringing should be. Slow, red clay surfaces benefit from a slight reduction from your normal string tension (generally 2 or 3 pounds lower). Very fast surfaces like grass will necessitate a slightly tighter string tension (usually 2 or 3 pounds tighter). When I compete, I like to have 4 frames freshly strung. Two of these frames are at my preferred or normal tension (for me this is 56 pounds). I will have one of the other two strung at 54 pounds and the last one at 58 pounds. This allows me some flexibility that can improve my control and/or pace. If I am playing on red clay, I will have two racquets at 54, one at 56 and one at 58. If I am playing on a very fast surface, I will have two racquets at 58, one at 56 and one at 54. In some matches, I have actually switched racquet frames depending upon whether I am serving or returning serve. I will use a slightly lower tension frame when serving (to give my serve more pop), and then a slightly higher tension when returning serve (to maintain control). It should be noted that I only use this dual racquet technique when I am playing on a medium or fast surface.
So this summer, end the outdoor season by playing league, club or USTA tournaments. Keep the above information and advice in mind as you prepare for the tournament(s). I assure you that if you do, you will soon become a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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