A few tips for Clay

As the clay season kicks into high gear, some die-hard tennis fans are already looking for any clay court – it could even be green clay – to play on.  The most common type of court in the world is the outdoor hard court.  So, if you’ve found a clay court somewhere, kudos to you.  Now let’s work on turning you from a “cow on ice” to a bristling desert warrior, complete with the war grunt and the defiant “Vamos!”.  Okay… I over-exaggerate a bit, but there are some tips that could help you top that pesky hitting partner who has your number on clay.

  • Patience is a virtue: And for a tennis player, this has never been truer on any other surface, as it is on clay.  This is an especially difficult adaptation for out and out attacking players.  The clay absorbs the kinetic energy of the ball – upon first impact – so well, that the velocity of a player’s shots are all but stripped off.  Suddenly shots that would have been winners on any other surface, keep coming back.  Time to dig deep and grind out those points.  One of the things clay court specialists do so well is not miss.  Watch their stroke mechanics, it is some of the most consistent in tennis.  If you are a lover of baseline tennis, clay court matches can be a joy to watch as each player pushes the other to errors with consistent shots.

          Side tip: Going for the kill too early, could get you burned, big time.  Remember the             ball slows down on impact.  So that perfect approach shot you played?  If your                     opponent is good enough, he or she has more time for the pass.

  • Top Spin Rules:  There are many reasons why Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player of all time, and I can guarantee you one of those reasons is his top spin.  Top spin is deadly for two reasons – and if you’ve played a top spin player, you know these two.  One is the flight path of the ball.  There are so many tiny mechanical adjustments a player has to make as they move to meet a shot.  Perfecting those tiny adjustments is the primary essence of practice, beyond grooving in the basic stroke.  Doing this is tough enough when taking a flat shot, it is harder when predicting the impact point of a top spin ball – and they are fast too so you only have say two thirds of a second to do it.  That’s cause the ball curves so much during mid-flight, it is easy to misjudge and as such more adjustments are needed.    The second reason is what the ball does after it makes impact on the sand.  It hops.  So now a second mental-physical calculations has to take place.  Where will it be after the bounce.  Flat shots are more consistent and as such more easily predictable.  As long as you can get your racket face in front of its flight trajectory, you could get it back.  The flight trajectory of a top spin shot after impact (the bounce) is as predictable as the weather.  It depends on how much spin (RPMs) where put on it at the moment the shot was produced… and you don’t know that.  On clay, that hop/bounce, is wicked.  The combination of these two effects, are why Nadal’s opponents look so gassed out at the end of the second set.  Dealing with a topspin shot on clay repeatedly, is tedious.  Just ask Federer.  Use it on both the serve and ground strokes!

  • Work the Angles: Unless you are dealing with an absolute slouch or you generate absolute bestial power from the back court a la Juan Martin Del Potro, you will rarely ever hit through a strong opponent on clay.  The first bullet point already addresses ‘why’.  So apart from waiting for mistakes, how else can you win points?  Working the angles.  So basic tennis classes lay emphasis on hitting the ball deep.  Down the line!  Cross Court!  Hit it deep!  There’s a reason for this.  Deep shots put pressure on your opponent because of where they land.  They give them less time to prepare their swing and if you do it right, your opponent is left virtually half volleying every shot from the baseline.  Unless your opponent is a top 10 player, this is good.  It also doesn’t allow your opponent impart as much power on the ball via hip rotation and racket head speed.  On clay, while deep strokes are good, they aren’t always productive in setting you up for outright winners.  There are so many other available angles on the court.  Don’t be shy.  Go for them.  That’s where topspin comes in, as it allows more margin for error. Angled shots pull your opponents wide and force them to hit shots outside of their comfort zone.  It also leaves the rest of the court open.  There’s your winner.  Just as with topspin, a well executed wide serve can deal just as much damage as a sweetly struck backhand that lands just inside the service line.

  • Slide baby, Slide: Now you’ve really got your opponent looking at you with their eyes almost popping out of their sockets.  Forget all that hard court sliding you see, don’t do it.  You’ll only hurt your knees.  Clay is a more forgiving surface for this favorite dirt player’s activity.  It is also the only surface that truly rewards forward momentum, as you can slide into shots that you wouldn’t maybe be able to make the extra slides to on a hard or grass court.  Sliding is also important to gain mastery of movement around a surface full of shifting ground.  You don’t wanna be eating dust… literally and figuratively.

  • Drop it like its hot: Okay this is the last one cos these subtopic headers are getting out of hand.  I really had to think long and hard about this one though.  The dropshot has always been attributed to the craftiest, most artistic of clay court specialists.  Those personally sired by the tennis god of touch such as Guillermo Coria.  However, Coria never won Roland Garros, and Nadal while possessing sublime touch himself, surprisingly doesn’t use the drop shot as much and he’s going for his tenth title at Roland Garros.  I’d say use this shot wisely.  The dropper doesn’t stay as low on clay, and if your opponent is a good mover, a poorly executed one will be dealt with accordingly.  Use as an element of true surprise and when your opponent is out of position.

Now that’s done, whose ready to play on some clay?!!!

 

 

Tennis in the Third World

There’s always this lull period right in the middle of the Clay court season, in between Barcelona and Madrid, before it picks up with the latter, moving at a brisk pace through the eternal city and then landing on the hallowed sands of Roland Garros for a clay crushing crescendo.  There’s a lot to look forward to and right about in the following days and weeks, but for now, there’s a lull.

First of, let’s quickly recap the last two weeks shall we? Maria Sharapova made her return to tennis, much to the chagrin of Eugenie Bouchard, who feels like she should be banned for all eternity.  Novak Djokovic continues to say his fine and play like something’s really, horribly wrong with his game.  Andy Murray does seem to be making some progress, albeit slowly.  Rafael Nadal has been having 10 star feast on clay and Federer’s busy gallivanting around the world with Bill Gates, raising funds for Africa.

Africa.  That leads right into my little discussion to fill this lull.  The other day, I was talking with a colleague at work about… work stuff and as I always do when I get a bit bored with a conversation, I started nodding my head mechanically and began streaming highlights of Federer’s rather entertaining match with Andy Murray during TMFA Part 3.  Did Federer fans catch the TMF part there?  I won’t say what it means here, but if you know it, high five.  Okay I digress.  So as I’m streaming the match, my ears which have been partially paying attention to my colleague’s rambling, catch this sentence.

“So do you play too, cos I’ve been looking for someone to play with and haven’t found anybody.”

VIDEO PAUSED.

Safe to say we are planning a hit this upcoming weekend and I’m so excited, I’m literally praying it happens.  It’s been 8 months since I picked up my racket and it’s not due to laziness or anything else along those lines.  In a continent where Soccer dominates like President Mugabe, there isn’t much room for tennis.  It is sad, but true.  It got me thinking of how many times I’d looked for a tennis court while visiting various states in Nigeria and couldn’t find one.  Best place to consistently play tennis is in Abuja.  I used to, when I lived there.  However, Abuja is akin to an oasis in a desert.  In other states, you’d be lucky to find a tennis court in a hotel you lodged in.  You’d be even luckier to find someone to play with.  There just isn’t the same tennis culture in the African continent as there is in its peer continents – Europe, South/North America, Asia and Australia.

The other evening, I did a quick google search of prominent tennis players from Africa.  There’s a decent lot from South Africa – Kevin Anderson, and Wayne Ferreira come to mind.  There’s Younès El Aynaoui from Morocco and even ESPN commentator favorite, Cliff Drysdale (I did not know that).  I could go ahead and claim Roger Federer now, but that might be a bit too far fetched.  I will limit my focus to players who are actually products of some existing African tennis system within some country and once I do that and exclude players with African roots such  as Federer, my list drops (plummets rather) considerably.  It is a sad reality because there are a lot of potential athletic players who never emerged in the tennis world.  I’ve played against a few.

I could rummage through a lot of reasons why the African continent hasn’t produced as many prominent players but I’ll stick with a few key ones.  For starters, tennis is a unique individual sport that requires a lot of self funding.  This isn’t soccer, where a player shows talent, is snagged up by an agent and offered a mouth watering deal.  They don’t even pay their flight ticket to the club training grounds.  I’m not knocking on footballers.  Making it in soccer is hard work but it is by nature a team sport.  If you show promise and are discovered, chances are you’ve got a team looking out for you.  In tennis, the same rules don’t apply.  At least not entirely.  The aspiring player relies solely on the backing of his family or some external support system (an academy perhaps) that they luckily find.  In a continent were poverty levels are sky high, most families struggle to put three square meals on the table.  Any dreams of Grand Slam glory are dashed by the grumblings of an empty stomach.

Of course, poverty isn’t unique to the African continent.  Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and the rest of the Serbian conquerors, emerged from the rubble of a war torn nation.  In some cases, their families put together all they had to help their charges achieve their dreams.  This is possible where there is diversity in the definition of success.  In Africa, education is seen as the key and path out of a life of struggle.  Education is the bar of excellence here.  Most parents and families would rather put together their life savings and ship of their wards to foreign schools than see them off to say a Nick Bolletieri aca