The clay court season is upon us, and thus serves as an important reminder: how important the surface is.
A popular topic of conversation in tennis circles is how clay court playing and training is so beneficial to all kinds of players.
For young players, the surface slows the game down. This makes for an environment that requires the implementation of vital strategies and consistency. For all players, the surface is also better on the knees, making it a favorite amongst the injured and weathered.
Analysts, coaches and aficionados alike attribute the clay surface to the success of Spanish players. That’s because Spain (and other Latin speaking countries like Argentina for that matter) have mostly red clay courts to grow up playing on.
Clay is given credit for helping development. It typically makes players smarter, more patient, and fitter than those who grow up on hard courts.
Rafael Nadal, Spain’s greatest player ever, has won 9 French Open titles on clay and counting. He’s also won 10 titles at Barcelona, another clay court tournament. There’s a very weak argument to be made for that being a coincidence.
However, aside from clay courts major wins, Nadal has hoisted his fair share of hard court titles as well. The Spaniard also has 3 Australian Open titles, 3 Wimbledon crowns, and 2 US Opens.
I often hear people credit Nadal’s success to his defensive skills. However, he’s got more offense in the tank than most people realize. So what is likely the catalyst for this all-court potential that led him to over 10 majors? You guessed it: the red clay of his formative years.
Clay courters, if also introduced to hard surfaces at a young age, become the best all-around players. It’s the main reason America hasn’t produced a men’s major title winner since Andy Roddick in 2003. There is just not enough clay around.
So how do we combat this in the US? I guess the simple answer is to have more clay courts built. However, it’s not that simple.
The reason it’s not that simple is because a certain “hard court mentality” is embedded in American tennis culture.
Growing up, I played with both American and foreign-born tennis players. Of all the best ones, most of the foreign players had one intangible that made them stand out from the Americans: better poise.
Now that might sound kind of silly, but it’s really not a stretch. Let’s break it down.
European and South American children grow up in different cultures than American kids do. Most of them are bi-lingual, and life moves slower in most places outside of the US. With a more relaxed environment comes patience, something that goes a long way in tennis.
American tennis players at all levels—from McEnroe in his prime to McGillicuddy on the public courts—are often most associated with having tempers.
John McEnroe’s outbursts proved to be effective for his particular game. However, that’s not usually the case for young Americans.
The currently successful American players on tour are mostly not known for their tempers. John Isner and Sam Querrey are prime examples of this.
Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison, two other top Americans, lack a bit of temperament control sometimes, but they’re the exceptions to the young guys who don’t generally benefit from that trait.
If you take a look at all the Americans, though, none of them really perform during the clay court season. Sure, Jack Sock and Steve Johnson have cleaned up at the Houston clay court stop on tour, but where’s Houston?
An American man hasn’t won the French Open—or even reached the final—since Andre Agassi in 1999. One might say that observation is coming from an entitled perspective, but isn’t 18 years a while for one of the historically dominant tennis countries?
Serena and the American women in her rearview have done just fine on all surfaces through the modern era. However, the women’s side is not where the problem lies.
So how do we get American men’s tennis back to being a force again? You guessed it—the clay courts!
Although not the same thing as red clay, Har-Tru, which is close to red clay and more common in America, is relatively widespread throughout the country.
Despite being constructed for similar purposes, the two types of courts are very different.
Because of how it’s made, red clay is a lot slower than the green Har-Tru American clay, which explains the European patience I’ve been touting so much.
Red clay also requires a lot more maintenance than it’s greenish counterpart, making it seem less cost effective in the eyes of most American clubs. However, based on what we’re seeing from foreign players, it might be worth the investment.
All in all, if young American players want to succeed in this sport, they should be familiar with playing on slower surfaces, particularly red clay if they can. In my own playing, I see the difference between my American friends and those who grow up on the red stuff, and results speak for themselves.