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How To Play On Clay

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Roland Garros is perhaps one of the most exciting events to watch. Each year, I see many players running to the nearest clay court to emulate the wonderful play to which they are treated when this Grand Slam event unfolds.
Here in the northeastern quarter of the U.S., a number of clubs offer their members the option of playing on a clay surface. Less commonly, you may find communities that offer clay courts to the public.
Essentially, there are two families of clay courts: red clay and green clay. The latter variety is normally what is known as Har Tru, which is a brand name associated with clay courts. Although there are some differences in each, the commonalities far outweigh any differences.
Given the fact that many of my readers in Europe and South America play exclusively on clay, and given the number of clay courts spread throughout the U.S.; I am dedicating this month's column on my insights for playing your best tennis on clay.
The first reality that must be accepted is that clay surfaces are "natural" surfaces. Whether made from crushed bricks or a "synthetic" form of clay, these surfaces' playing characteristics change day to day, and even hour to hour. Much tennis is played on hard courts which have a very consistent quality. Granted, there are faster and slower hard courts, and hard courts do change with respect to speed and bounce over time. Still, hard courts for the most part remain far more consistent in their playing characteristics than grass or clay.
Temperature, humidity, amount of play that has occurred on the court and what kind of maintenance a natural court (grass or clay) receives can affect what are the particular playing characteristics (speed and bounce) at any given time. Literally, you can play on a court in the morning and return to play on the same court in the evening, and find that you are in effect playing on two different courts. The lesson here is to never take a court's playing characteristics as a given. One must play on the court a bit before these characteristics can be reliably determined.
Like all natural surfaces, the court may have live and dead spots. The bounce associated with one part of the court may be quite different from that in another part of the same court. Add to this that natural surfaces have ruts and other blemishes, and you have a surface that presents many more variables than the typical hard court. Again, one must familiarize himself/herself with the individual court idiosyncrasies before competing.
This said, clay courts do have some commonalities which are normally present.
First, clay courts are usually a slower surface. The ball literally slows down more so than it would on hard courts after it bounces. Consequently, players can run down more balls and rallies tend to be longer. Indeed, hitting winners on clay surfaces is usually a difficult proposition at best.
Second, the ball bounces higher on clay courts than almost any other surface. All things being equal, the bounce is usually noticeably higher. As a result, players can hit balls deeply into the opponent's court and find that the opponent must move back from the baseline to hit balls at a "normal" height. Usually, players move significantly back and allow the ball to drop a bit before making contact.
Third, all spin (topspin and slice) are exaggerated when playing on clay surfaces. Slice shots stay a bit lower and may even skip a bit. Topspin shots, which are the norm in clay court play, tend to bounce higher than is normally the case. Thus, it is not surprising to find that flat shots rarely, if ever, are the norm when competing on clay.
Lastly, movement on a clay court is very different than what one experiences on a hard court. Solid footing is a bit more elusive on clay. This is why the pros learn to slide into their shots when competing on clay. Strange as it may seem, sliding is a more reliable and stable footwork than running when competing on clay. This is particularly true if the clay surface is dry and/or dusty.
If you play on clay regularly, these attributes are probably nothing new to you. However if you normally practice and or play on a hard court surface, you need time to become acclimated to these differences that clay presents.
What amazes me is that grass is just the opposite of clay with respect to play characteristics. So when the pros transition from the clay of Roland Garros to the grass at Wimbledon (within two weeks), I am amazed that they can adjust their games so drastically.
When competing on clay, the normal game plan involves groundstroke rallies. If you don't have solid groundstrokes, clay is going to be a difficult surface upon which to compete.
Thus, the first rule of clay court play is to be patient! Recently, I did an informal study of the number of strokes recreational players hit before the point ends. On an average, each player hits 2 or 3 strokes before the point has ended. On clay, the number usually is a bit higher at 3 to 4 strokes. Although this may not seem to be a significant difference, I would argue that over three sets the additional strokes add up to a number which is significant.
Hard court players are used to aggressive play where winners actually can be executed. On clay, the patient player usually prevails. She/he waits until the right opportunity if a winner is to be tried. More often than not, winners are a rarity on clay. As is the case on any surface, the player who makes fewer errors almost always wins. However on clay, this is a cardinal rule! Big bangers usually have difficulty on clay. Pushers (who are patient by nature) often times win big when playing on clay.
Allied with this, big serves are normally not a weapon on clay. Don't get me wrong. A 125 MPH serve is tough to return on any surface. Still, the chances are much greater on clay than any other surface. If you are playing against an opponent who hits such a powerful serve, you are competing on an advanced level. Most intermediate and recreational players are capable of nothing faster than 100 MPH.
So, what should be your serve strategy on clay? Well, I recommend the following. On first serves, go with a slice serve that is hit with as much spin and pace as is possible. Normally, this puts the ball moving to the left, if you are a right handed player. If you direct this serve to draw your opponent wide when serving to the deuce court and into the body of the opponent when serving to the ad court, you will be playing percentage tennis. Granted, there won't be many aces, but the returns will probably be weaker.
Second serves should almost always be high bouncing kick serves that are directed at the opponent's backhand. This is particularly beneficial if your opponent hits only a one handed backhand. One handers usually fatigue over time when returning high bouncing serves. Given the increased pace on both pro tours, I believe it is more difficult for the one handed player to win. Two handers generally are able to handle the higher bouncing balls better and do not fatigue as easily. Regardless of what type of backhand the opponent hits, your best second serve is the kick serve. It is very difficult to hit a powerful, winning return off the kick serve. In fact, I know many clay court specialists who hit nothing but kick serves... first and second.
If you do hit only the one handed backhand, your best return off the kick serve may be to hit a short, chip shot that is angled crosscourt. In other words, a slice shot that lands crosscourt in your opponent's service box. This forces her/him to come to the net which is not always the best position when competing on clay. Passing shots on clay are usually easier to hit successfully.
Given the nature of clay, it is very foolish to attempt a return of serve that is intended to be an outright winner. The odds are very much against you. Rather, the best strategy is to return in such a way that your opponent must stay deep in her/his court, and strike her/his reply using whatever is the weaker wing. Normally, the backhand is a player's weaker side.
My rule of thumb when competing on clay is to return cross court to my opponent's backhand about 80% of the time. Granted, there are no surprises. But, this approach allows me to be reasonably certain that the opponent is not able to tee off and strike a winning shot.
Once a rally begins, the goal should be to keep your opponent back by hitting deep, topspin groundstrokes. Here again, most of these should be hit crosscourt where there is greater margin for error. In addition, you will tempt your opponent into hitting a reply down the line. Down the line shots on clay are riskier than on any other surface. Why? Well, the slower surface means that unless your opponent is way out of court, he/she is likely to track down your shot and return it at a severe angle crosscourt. You will find yourself running a lot if you hit many down the line shots.
Rather, you want to hit crosscourt shots that result in long rallies. These rallies will mean that you and your opponent are running less. The hard court basher normally will try to move her/his opponent "coast to coast." This side to side, baseline rally results in both players running more, and she/he who is more consistent in her/his groundstrokes will normally prevail. If you can hit consistent groundstrokes while running side to side on the baseline, you can greatly benefit from an opponent who wants to attempt this strategy. Of course, this presumes that you are in shape and can endure running for long periods of time.
Really, there are two shots that are "aggressive" when playing on clay. The first is the inside/out forehand. Jim Courier won Roland Garros by being able to hit this wonderful shot. On clay, it is aggressive in that it allows most players to hit a strength (forehand) while directing their shots to the opponent's weakness (backhand). The inside/out forehand can be hit with tremendous pace, topspin and directed at a severe angle that forces the opponent out of court. If you own this shot, it is well worth employing. If you don't it is well worth learning. I have seen clay court matches where a player rarely if ever hits a backhand. Instead, this player will run around the backhand at all times to hit a forehand groundstroke. The slowness of the clay surface makes this tactic possible.
It is very natural for a player to stand farther away from the baseline than would normally be the case when competing on clay. Again, the high bouncing, deep ball forces a player back. If you notice this is happening with your opponent, bide your time and wait for a short ball. When you get such a short ball, hit a drop shot rather than going for a winner. Frequently, the drop shot will become a winner. Why? Well, your opponent is usually not looking for it and must scramble to get to the dropper. If it is hit with lots of backspin, most opponents will not be able to strike a reply that clears the net. Even if he/she does execute a successful reply, he/she will have run hard to get to the ball. Thus, this adds to his/her fatigue.
If you do hit the drop shot, just be certain to follow your shot to the net. In doing this, the only real winning reply that your opponent has is to lob you. On clay, there is a good chance that you can get back to the lob and hit a reply, which should be a lob or passing shot.
On occasion, serve and volleying does make sense when playing on clay. It keeps your opponent "honest" and can win you some points if the serve is directed wide. Even if you lose a serve/volley point (try this only when you are at 40-love or 40-15), it will get your opponent thinking, and perhaps, unsettle her/his rhythm a bit.
More likely, you can creep into the net when hitting a shot that forces your opponent to run wide and out of court. Unlike hard courts, clay makes everyone's feet "quiet." So, you can creep into the net without your opponent being aware of this move. If he/she hits a normal groundstroke while scrambling to get the wide ball you have struck, you are probably in position to hit a winning stop volley and/or angled volley. Here again, I would only recommend this tactic when you are ahead significantly in the score. You have little to lose and much to gain.
Moonballs (high, topspin lobs) are a great weapon on clay. This happens to be one of my best shots. On clay, I will almost always "torture" my opponent by hitting lots of moonballs. The advantage to this is that it keeps the opponent deep. If you direct your moonballs to the center of your opponent's court, the only reply that may be a winner is a drop shot. If you are aware of this possibility, you can anticipate the shot and move aggressively to hit a winning volley of your own. I have a very bad knee. So, running is not a good option for me. By hitting lots of moonballs to the center of the court, I am not likely to be doing as much running as I would with other tactics. Even if you can run, hitting moonballs to "take a rest" during a match is not a bad idea when you are fatiguing.
When competing on clay and using moonballs, I try very hard to keep close to the baseline. This action allows me to hit at more severe angles than my opponent, if I should want to deviate from the center approach.
I remember many years back when Jim Courier was competing in Roland Garros. He was struggling in a mid round match, and a rain delay occurred. His coach, Jose Higueras, told him during the break in play to move closer to the baseline. Indeed, Jim followed this advice and quickly dominated in the remaining sets.
The lesson here is to always be aware how far back from the baseline you are when playing on clay. If possible, move closer to the baseline. You will probably have to adjust your contact point a bit, but the advantage is in the potential angles you can hit. Just don't be too quick to pull the trigger when hitting a sharply angled groundstroke.
More often than not, it is best to hit all of your groundstrokes high and at three quarter pace. If you add topspin, the net consequence will be a controlled shot that does not wear you down physically. Muscling balls on clay just doesn't make sense. You probably won't hit many winners and you will fatigue yourself more quickly.
Still for many hard court players, hitting hard is a given. They simply can't play well if they have to hold back.
Polyester strings are a godsend for the hard court basher. These strings impart more spin to the ball. They allow for a full, powerful swing when the ball is hit with excessive topspin. The key is to make certain that you don't try to hit flat. If you are bound and determined to hit full out, make certain that you hit with topspin. Polyester strings make the additional spin easier to generate.
Strings on clay are important. First, I would recommend that you string your racquets 2 or 3 pounds lower than your normal preference when hitting on clay. Why? Well, these lower tensions will automatically allow you to generate more power. Since you are likely to be hitting with excessive topspin and/or slice, the added power is manageable and controllable.
My normal stringing consists of polyester main strings with natural gut cross strings. If I am playing on a medium speed hard court, I will go with all natural gut for the added "feel" these strings provide. On clay, natural gut is great, but you must remember that the string will not last as long. Clay particles wear out natural gut very quickly. In addition, many clay courts add calcium periodically to help the court hold onto moisture. Calcium truly "eats" through natural gut very quickly. In fact, natural gut deteriorates quickly in any kind of moisture. Take the grit and calcium of clay and add a bit of moisture, and I assure you that your will be restringing natural gut frequently.
When I play on clay, I use all polyester stringing. I keep my crosses about 2 to 3 pounds lower in tension than my mains. This helps increase the spin potential, and provides a softer bed resulting in a bit more "feel." Polyester strings wear well on clay. Given the cost associated with natural gut, clay courters can save a bundle by using any synthetic string.
If you are new to clay or have been away from it for a while, it is worth spending some time refurbishing your sliding capabilities. I would recommend that you try sliding at home first. Wear socks and slide on a wood floor or other flat, non-carpeted floor. This is fairly easy to do and will give you a "feel" for sliding. Then, spend some time on real clay courts doing nothing but practicing sliding. Use the extreme backcourt area. You don't want to mar the primary playing area with your practice slides. It takes a little while but once you have the slide down, it is fairly easy to integrate the slide into your groundstroke movement. Here again, spend some time practicing groundstrokes while sliding before you attempt to compete.
Sliding will benefit from shoes that have a relatively flat sole that does not have grooves. I find that somewhat older shoes that have been worn down a bit from hard court play are often times perfect for clay court competition.
As a final note, I would remind the reader that clay courts are particularly forgiving on the joints. Hard courts require running and pounding. The joints in the ankles, knees and hips take a beating. The softness of the clay surfaces and the sliding motion associated with clay court play generally make playing this wonderful game less painful on the body. It is no coincidence that many senior players will only play on clay. So if you follow the guidelines that I have put forth in this month's column and give yourself a little time to become acclimated to clay court tennis, I am absolutely certain that you will find yourself becoming 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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