TENNIS ON CLAY AND GRASS – THE REAL TENNIS

Depending on who is your favorite, you have your favorite surface. Grass for Federer fans, clay for Rafa and Dominic fans.

But this is not the right point of view if you want to look for arguments in favor of any court surface.

The incentive to write this post were two things.

  1. Just read on ATP website about Federer vs. Delpo final in Indian Wells. Federer fans may be surprised to hear, it was Federer to win the most points in longer rallies and it was Delpo to win the most short rallies. Usually Federer is meant to play fast, short exchanges and avoid long baseline rallies. Surprise? Not really, if you know Federer’s whole career, not only his slam titles and not only his game after 30, when he first started to lose on hie favorite surfaces, mainly to Djokovic but also to Rafa and his well learned lesson was just to go for short points, hit more aces, attack the net on serve and on return. Everything coming from understanding what belongs to his age. But Federer had always problems with hard hitting opponents like Nadal.
  2. Yesterday I did watch a bit the match of Fritz against Herbert. After some first games I was perfectly bored. Fritz serving: 125-135 mph: everything aces or serve winners. Herbert serving: 125-135 mph: everything aces or serve winners. From time to time serve&volley. Almost more time for serve preparation, using towels or sitting on the bank than exchanging shots. These days only players in the middle of Top100 and rather close to 30 or 30+ don’t have such serve and still play longer rallies also on hard courts

It’s maybe extreme, but for me playing tennis on cement is like jumping high and landing on cement or running barefoot on the highway.  And here are some points I would use as arguments to have hard courts disappear from tennis.

  • History

Historically tennis was played first on grass, then on clay. Including US Open, which was played on grass until 1974, then some years on clay and first since 1978 definitely on hard.  Why? I think, the answer is very simple. Hard is not good for players. It’s good for court owners. To build and maintain grass or clay courts means a lot of work and cost, while you can build and maintain cement courts like you do with highways, but the “traffic” is not so heavy 😉 So the roots of tennis sit in grass and clay.

  • Injuries on different surfaces

There are two main types of injuries in every sport. Maybe more in tennis than any other sport.  They are: fatigue- or stress-induced. First are more likely to happen on clay, were rallies are longer, so players must run more and hit more shots for a match. Players can avoid them by training their fitness to be prepared for fatigue.  And if you are not, these are first of all cramps and similar thing. You take an ice bath or similar recovery treatment and the “injury” is over. Of course there is still the risk of more acute injuries, if you are going in the movement and hitting beyond your actual capabilities, diminished by fatigue.  Stress-induced  injuries can come from missing skills – like returning powerful shot of the opponent while missing the ability to dampen the impact of the coming ball with a slice or staying back behind to hit the ball not on the rise or – the opposite – to play half-volley: at this time the ball has almost no spin after the bounce.

Clay and grass are both “soft” surfaces. You can slide on both.  The friction between the shoe sole and the court surface is not a factor to get injured (it’s the friction between shoe inner-sole and the feet, which causes blisters, which can lead to many other injuries.

Hard courts are not player-friendly. Overload from every strike of the foot on the ground is a lot higher than on soft surfaces.  This applies first of all ro heel strikers (which are the most on tour). Some, like Federer (see this article) are forefoot runners and instead of sliding (which many do) they hit on the run and change directions without sliding (you cannot slide on forefoot or toes ;)).

If you need more details and some scientific research results, read these two articles:

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Caroline_Martin7/publication/312524865_Tennis_playing_surfaces_Effects_of_performance_and_injuries/links/588089ce08ae9a860ffb5e91/Tennis-playing-surfaces-Effects-of-performance-and-injuries.pdf

https://www.podiatrytoday.com/pertinent-insights-preventing-injuries-tennis-court-surfaces

 

  • Display of matches – what’s more attractive for spectators and more demanding in terms of players’ skills.

Again, depending on your favorite (baseliner, grinder, ser&volleyer, aggressive basliner), you will probably find the matches more attractive, in which your favorite mostly wins. Once again – not a good starting point for an somehow objective analyze.

The fastest surface is grass, but it’s a soft surface. It’s a pity, only 3 tournaments are played by each player (2 of them a preparation for Wimbledon). On grass you can play every game style. Long baseline exchanges. Serve&volley. Grass turned to be a kind of very specific surface, where only highly specialized players can have a success. But it’s just the opposite. Not many even try to train for grass because of so little tournaments number and so little number of courts.

Like every other surface, both grass and clay can be played indoors, so all the year at any place in the world or at least under roof.

Matches on clay consist of longer rallies, where point-constructing and a big variety of shots are the main skills. Clay eliminates partly the undeserved advantage of very tall players because the ball is slowing down after the bounce more than on other surfaces. Instead in can bounce higher. In fact you will see also more net approaches and battles at net, including variety of volleys, dropshots and lobs than on faster surfaces.

Some find long rallies boring. Well, they are not boring by definition. Depends on players. Some can only grind, bring the ball back to the other side of the net until the opponent goes nervous or fatigued and commits error. But the best players, no matter their surface-related specialization, have the most possibilities to show their excellence in every aspect of the game.

If you watch top players, every rally on grass (or hard) is too short. You would like to watch “epic” matches, with long rallies, so long their are not simple grinding. On grass it goes too fast. On hard it ends more and more with serve+0, serve+return or serve+return+1. You spend more time watching players walking around (25 seconds for serve preparation, than 5-10 seconds of playing).


Short conclusion: I would like  hard to disappear from professional tennis. Even more from teaching children (mostly starting at  6 or 8). Both because of causing most and worst injuries and because of not offering spectators much attraction, so they focus rather on things displayed on telebim (themselves if they are clowning big or celebrities, which must not play clowns to be shown).

Well, it’s not realistic to expect ATP to change the status quo (but it can be changed as the history of tennis proves). So what can doi a player, who likes to play on clay or on grass?

Adapt his schedule. Play every tournament on clay and grass and skip so much hard courts events you can. Some you cannot if you don’t meet ATP rules for age, number of matches played and some others. They are mandatory. You must play then. But must not prepare a special game for the surface. You can still play your usual game, with only minor changes. You lose early? Good! You earn some days rest in the overloaded and too long season. You have not much points to defend next year. You avoid injuries and are ready to play your best, when tournaments on soft surfaces come.

This is, what I would recommend Thiem, just a victim of hard surface. I would recommend the sama Nadal, a big and long-time victim of success on hard courts, given he meets criteria to be able to skip, what he wants. And Federer too. Why not to play clay and grass and maybe Australian Open and only few “home” tournaments on hard (Basel and Shanghai) and skip the rest hard court tournaments? The same applies to everyone on tour. Those, who are training from very young and playing most of their careers on hard – can still skip clay and grass if they like. And think about why so many “big (tall) servers” come from US and Australia.


A word from Pierre Paganini

“Mystery continues to abound about Roger Federer playing the clay season and the words of his fitness trainer Pierre Paganini add to the speculation. Recently, interviewed by the New York Times, Paganini explained the difference between playing on hard and clay courts.

The advantage when you play on clay for the joints is that there is less shock because there is the slide, and the disadvantage of [playing on] hard courts is that shock,‘ he said. ‘But the advantage on hard courts is that the shock is brief.

In contrast, the disadvantage with the slide on clay is that there is a lot of vibration in the joints. We don’t see it from the outside, but to control this slide there is instability in the knee, the foot, the ankle.”


This was told in conjunction with Federer playing or skipping clay season this year.  But the opinion has a general value.

I would add something, IMO important both for Federer and for Thiem. It’s a keyword in some of my other posts. The running form. Federer has just optimal running form (forefoot striking) for hard surfaces. Thiem, like Nadal and many others, are heel-strikers and both try to slide on hard surfaces too. Which is the worst combination of running and surface. If you don’t slide on clay, your game will be not optimal but you don’t risk injuries. If you slide on hard, your game may be still well, but you risk injuries.

Something to think about for every player.

Update 2.04.2018, 10:01

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2 Replies to “TENNIS ON CLAY AND GRASS – THE REAL TENNIS”

  1. Unfortunately I haven’t had hardly any time to read your blog lately, let alone dropping a comment.
    [Rallies on clay tend to be longer on clay because of the specifics of that surface].
    I agree with your, but it is probably only part of the whole picture /story.
    I explain myself.
    Last year, about the same time of the year, I was ‘lucky’ (my choise of words is a bit cynical as I was only able to watch a lot of tennis at that time of the year because I was at home all spring recovering from a radical prostactemy), played on clay.
    One of the matches I remember vividly was the first Monte Carlo SF match between Ramos-Vinolas and Pouille on Sky Sports (Ramos-Vinola in my humble opinion a typical Spanish clay court player, and Pouille – in comparison with Ramos – a more offensive minded player who likes to make forays to the net, and disposes of very good volleys).
    Perhaps you saw that match as well.
    In any case it was painful seeing Pouille’s forays to the net most often being punished by laser accurate passing shots or well targeted lobs.
    Before that match started I happened to take take notes of an interview, which started with an interesting question from Anabel Croft adressed to Thomas Muster and Fabrice Santoro, both excellent former clay court players.
    Annabel Croft and Markus Buckland were commenting this first SF- match on skysports and had invited those two former clay court specialists to their little studio high within sight of the central court of the Monte Carlo tennis venue, to talk with them about the upcoming match.

    Annabel Croft: Has tennis on clay changed ?
    Thomas Muster: It’s the balls that have changed. They are made now (in comparison with back then) of a different kind of rubber, and have also less pressure (inside is a gaz) than they used to have. As a result of this the current balls don’t take off (the ground) as fast as they used to in the past, which gives the defender more time to track the ball down and hit a passingshot. In other words, the attacking player is now getting punished on volleys that used to be winners in the past; and because it is harder to hit winners, the rallies tend to be much longer (too long in his opinion) than they used to be in the past.”

    Muster admitted however that the tennis community doesn’t like him expressing his opinion about that topic, perhaps the reason why I couldn’t find find any footage afterwards of this intersting exchange on the website of skyports.
    Anyways, I think Muster’s comment shows that rallies on a clay surface have become longer in comparison with the past a.o.t. because of the type of balls they use today.
    As for the opinion that [ you (we) will see also more net approaches and battles at net (in a match played on a clay court) ], Roger Federer doesn’t seem to share that view, at least not in an interview he once gave to a journalist of the Independent.
    https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/tennis/federer-on-clay-you-dont-need-a-volley-or-a-serve-its-too-easy-1979825.html

  2. Hi Wilfried,
    Thanks for an interesting contribution. I did watch Monte Carlo as every year, but probably not the match of Ramos against Pouille. Pouille is not a clay court specialist, which is rare in France, but Pouille is for some time Dubai based, probably regularly having training with Federer. The Federer’s story on clay looks quite complicated in his interview. Muster was in his prime time one of my favorites, just very aggressive on clay court.
    I cannot tell anything about balls, but for every tournament you will hear from different players different opinions about how the ball “feels”, bounces a.s.o. So I’m not sure about all those technical details.
    I also disagree with Federer, that clay game is only about holding the ball in the court and missing ability of hitting winners. Of course, you cannot play such short rallies as on hard or grass, but you most work, not only with legs, but with a brain, to find the right sequence of shots and be prepared for passing shots, so to cover well the court, if you approach the net. And with a shot variety, you need to create position for a winner.
    Boring grinding you can see on every surface. Some can play 30-shot-rallies on every surface. And not necessarily to get exhausted if these are not shots hit by Thiem, who uses all his energy for every shot.
    Maybe there are not so many net battles on clay, but if so, they can be longer than on hard. If you approach the net on hard, you either win with first volley or maybe then a smash or you lose the point.
    Well, there are so many points of view and aspects for every surface and for every top player and we miss direct knowledge. Even very experienced coaches, like Bresnik, miss this direct knowledge, because of never being professional player.
    And long rallies on grass are also common. When Federer did play Djokovic, both playing fast and taking ball early, you could see many long rallies, not that one of them was able to finish too many points in the interval of 1-4 shots.
    Because of timely coincidence of such two players like Fed and Rafa, both made for different surfaces, the tennis world may be divided into FedFans, only speaking about every court and ball to play slower every year and Rafa fans – but I never heard, Rafa fans to claim, that some court is too fast. No court was too fast for Rafa in his prime time or even in some seasons after his prime and lots of injuries (not caused by physicality of playing on clay, but because of playing the clay game on hard courts).
    And the other side (of – after Muster – balls for clay getting slower), clay court specialist, including lots of Frenchmen and Spaniards, are doing quite well on hard, while typical hard court players miss some game aspects to play well on clay.

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