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The Basics of 'Dirt Ball'

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in May. I love this time of year as it marks the heart of the clay court portion of the pro tours' circuits, and culminates in Roland Garros. Here in New England, there are a good number of private clubs that offer members the opportunity to play on clay. Unfortunately, the cost of maintenance associated with clay court surfaces has forced many public courts to be converted to hard courts. At one time, there were a number of public clay courts in the US. Given this relatively wide spread conversion to hard courts, it is more difficult to play "dirt ball." Still, there are some public clay courts and many private clubs are exclusively clay court organizations.
The advantages of playing this great game of ours on clay are many. But, two stand out. First, clay is usually a slower surface which translates into longer points. From an observer's perspective, watching pros compete on clay enables the viewer to perhaps enjoy a match that spans three or four hours. For recreational and amateur competitors, clay court competition means longer rallies and lots of court movement.
Second, clay is usually a very kind surface with respect to the body. Playing on clay (definitely softer than hard courts), allows for less hard impact upon one's body. The joints are not jarred as much. The "pounding" that the body takes is significantly less pronounced. Given these factors, it is no surprise that senior players love to play on clay.
But, the best reason to play on clay is that it is just, plain fun!
If the reader can, I strongly encourage spending as much time this summer playing on clay as is possible. If you are new to this surface (or even if you are not), I want to use this month's column to provide you with the basics that you need to know to play effective, "dirt ball" tennis.
In America, we are likely to see only two varieties of clay court surfaces: red clay and green clay. The latter is often called Har Tru, which is a brand name for most green clay.
In other areas and countries, there are yellow clay, maroon clay, grey clay and even blue clay. It is very unlikely that the reader will encounter any of these four surfaces, but it is possible.
All clay court surfaces are really made from particles of crushed brick (red clay), particles of basalt (green clay or Har Tru) or natural clay that is ground down into fine particulates.
Red clay courts are usually very slow. The ball does not come off the court bounce with as much speed or power as is the case with hard courts or grass courts. The spin (if any is applied) tends to be more exaggerated in its effect. Thus, topspin shots bounce much higher than one would expect. Slice shots can stay very low after the bounce. Flat shots may actually "skip" a bit and slide momentarily as they make contact with the course. Red clay courts usually do not hold moisture well. They need constant watering, or they are likely to become very dusty.
Green clay is a bit faster than most red clay courts. It, too, slows down the speed of the ball after the bounce, and like red clay, it will enhance any spin imparted to a shot. Although green clay has basically the same playing characteristics as red clay, these characteristics are generally less pronounced. Green clay courts do dry out fairly easily, but they can hold moisture better than red clay, and thus, are less likely to become dusty. It should be noted that some clubs or facilities will use green clay courts as indoor courts. Most commonly, the club or facility will put an inflatable "bubble" over the courts during the colder, winter months. Playing on green clay that is in some way covered is very different from playing on green clay, "outdoor" courts. Usually, covering any clay court makes it the surface play a bit faster. Also, covered green clay courts are less likely to exaggerate the effects of spin.
Ideally, red or green clay courts are well maintained. This means that the surface is watered regularly, brushed smooth regularly, and has any divots repaired ASAP. Most clay courts need regular applications of calcium on the top surface. Calcium helps the clay to hold onto moisture and maintain a more consistent and even playing surface. In addition, clay courts should be periodically "rolled" to flatten out any irregularities and to make for a court surface where the "density" and "compression" of the clay is even throughout.
Clay courts require care and attention to play evenly. A dusty court surface makes court movement more difficult and bounces tend to be less consistent and predictable. Sometimes rain will make a clay court too moist and somewhat muddy. Humidity, temperature, rain levels, and the amount of use that a clay court is receiving need to be considered and addressed.
Properly maintained clay courts are an absolute joy. Improperly maintained clay courts can be one of the most frustrating experiences a tennis player can experience!
In that clay courts are "natural" surfaces (unlike hard courts), the playing characteristics of a specific court may actually change a bit during a match. The savvy clay court competitor is constantly monitoring court conditions and factoring these into her/his play.
I should make a parenthetical note here. If you are playing on a clay court that has recently been treated with calcium, you are likely to find that natural gut strings will snap more quickly than is normally expected. Calcium seems to "eat" through natural gut strings and weakens them. I have actually seen a freshly strung racquet snap strings within a half hour of play IF the string is made from natural gut AND the clay court has been recently treated with calcium. If you use natural gut (either exclusively or in a hybrid configuration), you always want to know when a clay court was last treated with calcium. If the court was treated within a week's time, you may want to consider using a frame that is strung with synthetic string. Synthetic string usually "weathers" calcium exposure far better than natural gut strings.
Running and court movement on clay courts can be a bit difficult for some. Clay court surfaces are by their very nature a bit more "slippery." Getting one's proper footing can be challenging. Getting "traction" on clay courts is usually not as easily achieved as on hard courts. The potential for slippery footing is increased when the clay court becomes dusty. A clay court that is too dry invariably has a thin layer of dust on the very top of the surface. It is this dust that can really wreak havoc on a player's footwork.
Ideally, the clay court player will run on his/her toes and slide into the proper court position to make contact with the ball.
If you watch the pros play on clay, you will note that they are always "sliding" into the act of hitting their shots. Indeed, this sliding has become so ingrained in some players that it is not that uncommon to see players sliding into shots on hard courts! (I don't recommend this latter form of sliding.)
You want to begin any court movement with steps where you are deliberately up on your toes. When you are up on your toes, you have the best chance of gaining quick traction and momentum that are needed to get to balls. Still, those first few steps can prove very difficult to initiate. The good news is, however, that you probably have more time to get to every shot when playing on clay. So, the somewhat "late" start is probably not going to affect whether you can actually track down one of your opponent's shots. Indeed, clay court tennis is about long rallies.
When you are about 3 or 4 feet from where you will make contact with the ball and execute your stroke, you want to literally stop running and slide (always in proper tennis stance for the stroke) into the stroke execution location. In truth, one of the things I love about playing on clay is that it is not only easy, but essential, to slide into making almost every shot, even volleys. (Obviously, the need to slide does not apply to serving or when one is moving backwards to hit an overhead smash.)
It is fairly easy to learn how to slide on clay. First, I recommend using a floor in your home (be sure to find a safe place, away from corners and sharp or hard objects you might hit if your slide goes awry). While only wearing a pair of socks (no shoes), try running on a hard floor (one without a rug). Once you have a bit of speed built up, simply slide sideways using your feet as if they were skis. You will need to bend your knees and lean your body to maintain proper balance. The process is very similar to what you may have observed when a puppy or dog runs to her/his food dish on a slick floor. Almost without fail, the dog will run hard to the dish, and often times, slide beyond the dish as she/he tries to stop on the slippery floor.
Once you have mastered this technique in the privacy of your own home, go to a clay court and test your sliding skills. Simply run and slide as you did when practicing at home. I assure the reader that it will only take three or four tries before you will be sliding on the clay. The final step is to learn how to judge when to begin your slide when hitting strokes. You will probably "intuitively" make the right decision on when to begin your slide after only a few efforts. You, of course, want to slide with your body in the proper stance for executing the stroke that you are about to hit. It may seem that this is very difficult to learn and to execute. I would suggest that it is not. Indeed like riding a bicycle, once you learn the technique, you never really forget it.
Generally, it is best to have tennis shoes that are not worn and still have the ridges in their soles. The layer of clay on the top surface of a clay court will allow for the slide to occur despite these ridges being pronounced on the bottom of your shoes. The ridges, however, will help you gain traction when beginning to move from a static position, and these ridges will help you "control" your slide.
I have already identified the problem when using natural gut string on clay court that has recently been treated with calcium. Given the cost of natural gut, it is a very expensive proposition to use this type of string on clay courts that still have large quantities of calcium on their topmost surface.
For me, the ideal string combination is to use polyester main strings at what is two pounds below your normal overall string tension. For example if you normally string your racquets at 58 pounds, string your polyester main strings at 56 pounds when playing on clay. I prefer natural gut string for my cross strings. I always sting these at 2 pounds lower than my main stings. So if I were playing on clay, my mains would be at 56 pounds in the above example and my crosses would be at 54 pounds.
Lowering your string tension on clay is important. Why? Well, you can impart more power when you lower string tension, and you can enhance the amount of spin you impart to your shots.
Clay courts diminish the power of your shots. So, you want to add a little more to each stroke to compensate for this court playing characteristic. On clay, spin... especially topspin... is not just desirable. It is essential!
The lines on a clay court are actually "plastic" strips that are nailed securely into the court. Hitting a line when making a shot may make for a "skipping" bounce on any surface. However, hitting the lines on a clay court surface may actually render your shot a winner in that the opponent may not be able to compensate for this skip. I never recommend trying to hit lines, but on a clay court surface, it is more desirable.
I am blessed with groundstrokes that naturally impart quite a bit of topspin. Topspin brings the ball out of flight more quickly to make its bounce on the court. Then after the bounce, the ball (due to the spin) bounces higher than would normally be expected.
On clay, you can really tee off on every groundstroke. Imparting maximum topspin will make certain that your groundstrokes land within the boundaries, and that the ball will bounce very high. The net result of these should be that your opponent is forced to hit his/her replies from at least 3 feet or more behind the baseline. The farther back your opponent is, the less likely that he/she can hit a winner. Why? Well, you will almost certainly be able to chase down and hit any reply if your opponent is so far back.
So, the norm for all groundstrokes when playing on clay is to hit with excessive topspin and lots of power.
Because I can hit really reliable "moonballs," clay courts are a favorite.
Slice, however, is not to be overlooked. Slice can work well on clay. The key to using slice is to always make sure that slice is used to make your opponent move forward toward the net. Drop shots which use excessive backspin and angled slice shots that force your opponent to run forward can be very effective in effecting a weak reply from your opponent.
Flat shots are generally not advised on clay. They lose lots of their innate power due to the surface, and they often times can be returned as a winner.
With respect to serves, a flat serve can be effective on clay. You are not likely to hit an ace with it, but if it is well placed near one of the taped lines, it can be a serve that is difficult to return effectively.
Many players will only hit kick serves when playing on clay. The first serve is hit hard with lots of topspin. The second serve may have less pace, but is full of topspin and usually directed to the backhand wing of the opponent.
The slice serve can be effective as a first serve when playing on clay. Generally, a slice serve hit wide to the deuce court results in a weaker return. This cannot be overused, however. Rather, the sliced first serve should be used periodically and when the game score is in your favor (e.g. 40-5, 40-Love).
Because clay court tennis usually results in long points, conditioning is of key importance. If you wish to play well on clay, you need to be fit. You are definitely going to be "on the run." The good news is that clay courts generally do not "hurt" your body as much as is possible with hard courts, as mentioned previously in this article. A two hour match on clay will probably not cause much joint pain, etc. However, a two hour match on hard courts can leave a player feeling the results of "pounding" on a hard surface. You will probably do more running on a clay court, but the wear and tear on your body will probably be minimal.
I am not sure why, but players frequently do not hydrate as much when playing on clay as they might when playing on a hard court. The amount of cramping that occurs during clay court competition is often times more frequent and profound. My strong advice when competing on clay is to make a concerted effort to keep your body well hydrated.
Some of what follows has already been suggested in this month's column. However, I encourage the reader to print out the tactics listed below, and put them in her/his tennis bag. If you are moving onto a clay court after playing on other surfaces, take these basic tactics out of your bag and review them. This review may help you become more quickly acclimated and competing effectively on this wonderful surface of clay.

  1. High bouncing, deep, topspin groundstrokes are the norm on clay. If you ever wondered why the pros are six to eight feet behind the baseline when playing on clay, it is because the pros know that you can really keep the opponent back on clay. A player who is this far behind the baseline can't really hurt you... winners are out of the question, and possible angles are less severe. So, it is not surprising that rallies on clay can last for so long! The goal for the vast majority of groundstrokes is for the ball to land deep and to bounce as high as is possible.

  2. Serve and volley on clay is, at best, difficult (this is less true on Har-Tru clay). First, it is very difficult to get to the net quickly because the footing is poor. Second, the opponent has more time to set up for a passing shot on clay because the surface is slower. Lobs are easier to generate for your opponent because the ball sits up higher. Having said all of this, it should be noted that Fred Stolle won the French Open... So, it is possible to serve and volley on clay. I think the real key to success with this style of play lies in the serve. To serve and volley on clay, you need to have a good kick serve. This serve will allow you a little more time to get to the net, and its high bounce will often time elicit a weak return from the opponent. Big flat serves are really a disadvantage for the serve and volley player on clay. The slice serve wide on the deuce court is useful, but you can't use it too often. Once your opponent knows it is coming, she/he will move out to it and pass you down the line!

  3. Slice is very useful on clay. Here again, pace can actually be counterproductive. I recommend that you hit your slice at 70% pace. Your opponent will have to lift the ball and the lack of pace will make this task more difficult. I highly recommend hitting a moderate paced slice shot cross court and a bit shallow in your opponent's court. This will force the opponent to run to make her/his reply. Frequently, the opponent is better able to move side to side than forward when playing on clay. If you do hit this slice, I recommend immediately closing the net for a volley. Your opponent's shot will probably pass high over the net enabling you to put away a relatively easy volley. Failing this, the opponent may actually try to lob you when you hit this short angled, slice shot. No worries! On clay, you will probably have time to get back and make your reply or to get back in time to hit an overhead smash. The likelihood of your opponent's lob being an offensive topspin lob in this situation is minimal.

  4. Angles are the name of the game on clay. The sharp crosscourt shot that lands near the junctions of the sidelines and service lines will pay big dividends on clay. You may not own this shot, but on clay it is much easier to hit because the ball moves more slowly and bounces higher. The key is to keep your eye open for an opportunity to hit these shots. Of course, short balls lend themselves to these angled shots. Yet, I find that balls that are a little deep, but hit flatly without spin, are likely candidates for the powerfully struck crosscourt, severely angled shot. Just remember that as soon as you hit this angled shot you must come to the net. You would be amazed at how many "slow" players can get to balls on clay. So, you need to be ready to put away a volley should the opponent make a reply.
    When rallying from the baseline, crosscourt exchanges are generally the norm. The down the line shot is more risky on clay. Why? Well, it is much more likely that your opponent can run down this down the line "winner" when playing on the slow, clay surface.

  5. The drop shot is a great weapon on clay. When they are hit properly, they just die. However, when they bounce high, you can usually expect your opponent will have an easy put away. Drop shots on clay are easier to hit because you have more time to setup. Just remember the golden rule... never hit a drop shot from a deep court position. Rather, you must be near the service line if you wish to have a percentage drop volley. Finally, if your opponent is really far behind the baseline (more than 6 feet), you want to try and move in and hit the drop shot as her/his ball is on the rise. I know this sounds difficult, but it really is much easier to do on clay. If your opponent does get to make a reply to your drop shot, make certain that your next shot is a topspin shot that lands deep... a topspin lob if possible is an excellent reply. Remember, moving in and out on clay courts is generally more difficult than moving side to side. So making your opponent come to the net, and then, move back to the baseline can be a very effective pattern on clay court surfaces.

  6. Hitting behind your opponent will pay big dividends on clay. If you have your opponent running from corner to corner, don't be afraid to hit behind him/her... once he/she has committed himself/herself to a particular direction it is extremely difficult to change directions. The ball that your opponent would easily get to on a hardcourt will often times become impossible to reach on clay... if it means the opponent will have to change direction. So during "coast to coast" rallies, hit a ball behind your opponent during the exchange, and your chances of winning the point are greatly enhanced. Just remember that your opponent may try this tactic on you during such rallies.

  7. Patience is not only a virtue... it is a requisite... on clay. On clay, points are usually longer (this is less true on Har-Tru). You need to be ready to hit a bazillion balls if you want to win on clay. As stated earlier, this means that you will benefit on clay if you are fit. However, even the fit player can find himself/herself becoming fatigued during a clay court match. Whenever you find yourself becoming tired during a point or find yourself becoming impatient during a point... hit deep moonballs to the center of your opponent's court. The keys are to hit the ball high (to prevent any overhead smash), deep (to prevent short ball winners) and to the center of the court (to prevent angled replies). This center approach will buy you time to recuperate and to catch your breath if you are winded. I first encountered this "tip" in a book written by the famous tennis strategist, Pancho Seguro, and it has served me well!!!

  8. Never assume that a match is over on clay! Clay is a surface that lends itself to comebacks. You can never count an opponent out... nor, can you throw in the towel if you are down. On clay, the patient, persevering and determined player almost always wins. I have seen highly ranked players lose to lesser players on clay... many times! Playing on clay will automatically improve your mental toughness... if you give it a chance!

I hope that each of you have the opportunity to play on clay this summer. If you do, I assure you that following these "basics of dirt ball" will enable you to have lots of fun, better match results, and in no time, you will 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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