Clay mastery the true test in modern tennis
Simon Cambers @scambers73
This won’t endear me to anyone at Queen’s Club and probably not to the thousands of people for whom tennis means Wimbledon and grass courts.
But for someone who follows tennis all year round, there is a certain depression that sets in when you step inside the gates of Queen’s on the Monday after the French Open.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I love grass-court tennis and Queen’s is as picturesque a venue as there is on the tour, but when you have spent the past couple of months following the world’s best players through the clay-court season, it cannot fail to suffer by comparison.
One day you’re watching Rafael Nadal slug it out for hours in the final of the French Open; the next you’re watching Britain’s No 5 player take on Rainer Schuettler on a cool, windy day in London.
Within a few days, the feeling passes and the best things about grass-court tennis come through: the speed, the athleticism, the agility and, unfortunately only occasionally these days, the net play. As someone who grew up watching John McEnroe throw himself around and then tried to play in the same manner, this was tennis. It can still be the most exhilarating of spectacles.
The huge improvements in rackets and, more recently, the strings, have made it more difficult to play in the McEnroe way. Even average players can hit viciously dipping passing shots that players a generation ago could only dream of making. The serve-and-volley tactic is still effective but only if it is used sparingly.
To many people in Britain, clay was probably only something they encountered when they threw it around at each other in a pottery class at school. A fleeting image of Ivan Lendl looping moon balls to Mats Wilander in Paris was about as far as it got in terms of tennis and, to the untrained eye, it looked pretty dull.
But over the years, the realisation dawned that tennis was more than a big serve or a thumping return. Ask most of the top players and, although some will prefer the faster surfaces, they will probably admit that clay courts offer the truest test for a professional player. Wimbledon, with all its history and tradition, may still be the pinnacle of the sport but to win the French Open, especially in the modern era, requires every facet of one’s game to be in perfect order.
“I think the French Open is physically the toughest,” Andy Murray said in the build-up to this year’s event and anyone who has been to Roland Garros or watched it on television would surely agree. The slowness of the surface, exacerbated if conditions are heavy, as they often are, means that rallies are inevitably longer and sheer fitness is more of an issue than on grass or faster hard courts, where it is far easier to lash a winner.
It is not that there is any less skill required to hit a perfect ace, time and time again, under pressure, because there isn’t. It may be less physically brutal to bang down an ace than winning a series of energy-sapping rallies but it takes just as much talent to find the lines on serve and emphasis on holding your serve makes playing on grass mentally exhausting. But on clay, above hard courts and above grass, strategy and the ability to structure a point perfectly are absolutely crucial. It’s a different way of thinking.
It is a comparison often lazily bandied about but when it comes to clay-court tennis, at the very highest level, there really is a similarity to chess. It’s not enough to be able to bash the ball at 150mph; there has to be thought and guile to find a way past an opponent and it is essential to be able to think at least two or three shots ahead.
The wrong-footing shot is more effective, the drop shot is used more than on any other surface. Occupying the dominant position, like squash, is crucial. Mixing up your game with the odd serve and volley, the short slice, the surprise tactic, pays dividends. If you don’t have enough strings to your bow, you’re likely to be shot.
There are few better sights in tennis than watching the titans of the sport go toe to toe on clay because there is simply no place to hide. Any weakness is brutally exposed. Just ask Roger Federer, whose style of play on the surface has changed significantly over the past couple of years.
Having realised that attempting to trade cross-court groundstrokes – his one-handed backhand to the forehand of Nadal – was a losing option, he embraced the drop shot, a weapon he once scorned. “I used to think it was a panic shot,” Federer said. Now he uses it as much as anyone.
It is also no coincidence that clay is now the surface of choice for national associations around the world. Britain, Australia and more recently the United States have all announced huge initiatives to build clay courts and make them the favoured surface for players to learn the game on.
It was interesting to hear Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA Player Development Program, talk about his country’s move towards clay. “If you play more on clay as a youngster, you’ll become a better all-around player,” he said last month. “Developmentally you learn how to use the court a lot better, you learn to move a lot better, you learn to hit more balls and construct points.”
With the notable exceptions of Tim Henman and Murray, the dearth of world-class players in Britain over the past 25 years has coincided with a push to change the court surfaces at almost every club in the country. The desire to play all year round explains the need to move away from exclusively grass, but the authorities have a lot to answer for in their laying of artificial grass as the surface of choice.
Requiring little maintenance, it is a relatively cheap option but it is the worst surface for kids to learn on, too fast to allow the development of proper strokes. The points are shorter and the ability to structure a point is largely lost. It is not recognised as an official tournament surface and no events are played on it, and yet clubs are littered with them.
Just take a look at the Wimbledon champions over the past decade. Federer and Nadal both learned to play the sport on clay and though the slowing down of the grass at Wimbledon is an obvious factor, who would have thought a Spaniard would win there?
Only a decade ago, most of Spanish players would take a holiday after the French Open instead of coming to Wimbledon. Nadal is a special beast but the point is valid and he, Novak Djokovic and Federer all grew up playing on clay.
It’s also no coincidence that Murray broke on to the tour having spent two years as a teenager training on clay in Barcelona. Though he began by playing indoors in Scotland, the way he structures points and thinks about the game have a strong Spanish influence.
“The Spaniards have a different way of playing on clay,” he has said. “They are taught to hit the return on to a player’s backhand, every time, and then try to dominate the point with their forehand.”
Clay has its detractors, of course, with the main negative thrown around being that the “mudlarks” on tour win a disproportionate percentage of their ranking points by stacking up the tournaments on clay. Or that they are one-trick ponies, unable to perform on the other surfaces.
Tell that to Gustavo Kuerten, Carlos Moya, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario or even Thomas Muster. All four won the French Open and, although Sanchez Vicario’s occasional moonballs bring back memories of a few longer than usual afternoon snoozes, they could all play on every surface.
Sanchez Vicario won the US Open and reached two finals at Wimbledon while Moya made the final in Australia and each the others reached at least the quarters of one or more grand-slam tournaments. It just doesn’t stack up.
By the time we get to Wimbledon I am sure my mind will be taken back to memories of Boris Becker hitting diving volleys and McEnroe doing his thing and it will be as enjoyable as ever. But for the next fortnight, the tennis world will get the chance to see what clay has to offer. It’s an awful lot.