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The Way To Play On Clay

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

It is May as I write this, and not surprisingly, I am watching intently the early rounds of the French Open. Red clay has always been one of my favorites! Fortunately, I belong to a tennis club that boasts several red clay courts. So, my summer is spent having lots of fun on the dirt.

It is August as this column is published, and by now, children and adolescents north of the equator are out of school. Here in the U.S., high school matches are almost always played on hard courts. So, now that the season is behind these players, some will be fortunate enough to train and compete on clay.

If you have never played on clay, you owe it to yourself to vacation where clay courts are available, or if you are a bit daring, you might sign-in for a tournament played on this wonderful surface. There are enough clay courts in this country that if you really search for one, you will probably be successful.

However, playing on clay is quite different from any other surface…just ask Pete Sampras, Greg Rusedski or Stefan Edberg! So, this month, I am dedicating the column to playing on clay.

First, it must be understood that there are two distinct types of clay courts…red and green.

Red clay is composed of crushed brick that is spread on top of a natural base. Red clay courts in the U.S are truly red because the bricks in the U.S. are red. However, in Europe and in much of South America, the "red" clay courts actually appear somewhat orange. This is because the clay used to make the bricks in these areas is different from that in the U.S. Yet, despite the color difference, red and orange clay courts play very similarly.

Green clay is actually what is called Har-Tru (a brand name for the clay used to surface these courts). Har-Tru courts are usually placed on top of a natural base. Sometimes, these green clay courts are automatically watered by underground systems.

All clay courts require regular watering to prevent them from becoming dusty and sandy (this is why you don’t see many clay courts in the arid parts of the world). To help these courts retain moisture, calcium is periodically placed on the court. The clay itself inflicts havoc upon string longevity. However, when you put calcium on the court, the strings are even more likely to snap. If you like to play with natural gut, clay is going to increase the amount of money you need to keep string in your racquets. For this reason, I recommend that you string your racquets with synthetic gut, which is much more likely to endure the ravages of clay and calcium.

Red (and orange) clay courts play very slowly. It is very difficult to hit winners on a red clay court. The clay slows the ball down to a point that your opponent has a better than average chance of being able to get to the ball to make a reply. In addition, red clay courts make the ball bounce higher than hardcourts. This is why so many of the South American and European (where clay courts out number hardcourts) players have Western forehand grips. The Western forehand grip was made for the high bouncing ball.

Any kind of spin is exaggerated on a red clay court. Topspin bounces higher, kick serves jump out and out ferociously, slice stays low and at times it just dies. Flat shots are relatively useless on a red clay court. The "spin master" is at a great advantage on clay.

Green clay courts are similar to red clay courts. However, the balls do not bounce quite as high, the surface is a bit faster (winners are more possible) and sometimes the ball will actually skip a bit when you hit with slice. The big serve can still be useful on green clay, but it is not quite the weapon it is on hardcourts.

Footwork on clay courts (either red or green) is a bit more difficult than it is on hardcourts. It is extremely difficult to change directions quickly on clay court. Usually, the quick change results in slipping, and a resulting delay.

Many clay court players slide into their shots. This is not bad, but it is not necessary. One can run to the ball just as well as one can slide to the ball on clay surfaces. There may be some benefit in sliding with respect to stopping your motion to change direction, but it is not so significant that one needs to slide. I taught myself to slide on clay, but have abandoned the practice. Having a weak right ankle, which I have turned more than I would like to recall, I don’t slide anymore. If one slides on a clay surface that is not well groomed and maintained, it is possible to hit a small rock or to encounter a "packed" area. This can cause one to turn an ankle…believe me I know!

If you do want to learn to slide on clay, it is really easy. First, practice at home by sliding on a slippery floor while wearing only socks on your feet. Clay is not this slippery, but this will give you the basic idea. You simply run, and then, you stop and slide. Once you have mastered the at home sliding, go to a clay court and practice sliding on the clay near the back fence or curtain. Here, the clay is more likely to be cooperative. Simply run, stop and slide. After five or six tries, you will have it down. Incorporating the slide as a natural part of your game, however, will take a bit more time.

The type of shoe you wear can make a big difference with respect to your footing on clay. Most manufacturers of shoes have models that are specifically designed for playing on clay (often times, they are a popular model with a differently patterned sole). You don’t want to wear shoes with worn soles…you will certainly be unable to move well. Finally, you will want to tap out the clay that builds up in your shoes’ soles in between each point. You want tread for traction, but you want a tread pattern that permits sliding.

Clay courts show the wear of play. As you play, the court develops ruts, gullies, soft spots, dusty areas, etc. This is why the pro tournaments have grounds people sweep the court during every game changeover. This is usually impossible for the recreational or local tournament player. However, it is important to keep you eye open for any court irregularities. Try to smooth these out with your foot as soon as you see them. Believe me, there can be some major imperfections around the baselines as a match unfolds. Should the ball hit any irregularity, it is likely to bounce in an unpredictable manner…which increases the likelihood of an error.

Clay is the only surface in tennis where you can actually look at the bounce marks to determine whether a ball was in or out. Remember, if any part of the mark left by a ball is touching a line (when there is no visible space between the make and the line)…the ball is in. However, disputes on calls still arise because not all players know how to read the marks correctly. I always use the golden rule of tennis…if you are in doubt about a call, the ball was in!!!

Finally, the lines on clay courts are really plastic strips that are actually nailed into place. When a ball hits one of these lines, it really skips. Always keep your eye out for elevate nails on the lines. Once in a while, a nail will not be all the way down. These raised nails can make for unbelievable bounces, and they can actually trip players. I usually carry a hammer in my bag when I play on clay.

So, now that you understand some of the idiosyncrasies of clay, let’s talk about how to win on this surface. Well, here are the basics…

  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!

  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 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.

  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 are likely candidates for the crosscourt 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.

  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.

  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.

  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. 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). I read this "tip" in a book written by 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!

Playing on clay will really help you perfect your strokes! The fact that you will have more time to setup for shots means that you are more likely to execute a well-produced stroke. For this reason, I think clay is the best surface on which to learn the game of tennis.

Lastly, clay is a soft surface and is kind to your body. Hardcourts take their toll on joints, backs and muscles. Clay courts are perfect for the senior player (like me) who needs a respite from the pounding of hardcourt play.

I truly hope that each of you have the opportunity to play on both red and green clay court surfaces! If you do, take this article along. Hopefully, some of my basic principles of competing on clay will help you to 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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