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?!!!