There is something special about red dust on white socks in the heat of a French tennis tournament. This difficult, slow surface brings unique aspects to the game of tennis, and while the Stade Roland-Garros is clay’s most famous venue, it’s certainly not the only place where they play on clay.
But could you sneak onto center court and scoop up a few handfuls of the court, then go home and make yourself a pot from the one and only French Open? Not quite.
How is a clay tennis court made? A clay tennis court is made from a mix of materials that are layered and packed, then leveled and cleared of debris before finally being hydrated to the exact right composition for a slow, long tennis game.
First Things First: It’s Not Actually Clay
Grass courts were the only court surface available to those interested in playing lawn tennis instead of real tennis, but the weather in Cannes made play somewhat difficult at the end of the 19th century. In essence, the grass was dying under the French sun.
According to the French Open’s website, it is said that famed British tennis player William Renshaw made an attempt to save the grass on his tennis courts in France by covering them in a red powder that was made from finely ground pieces of pottery that had been rejected or broken in the local pottery kiln.
Today, There is No Grass Underneath the Red Powder
Tennis pros have moved onto more sophisticated means of developing a clay court than simply sprinkling some powder on top, which likely just killed the grass by a different means than scorching it under the summer sun.
Today’s European and South American clay courts are built in layers that are compacted: soil, crushed gravel, a coal residue called clonker, crushed white limestone, and then a topcoat of signature red brick dust.
These layers have a combined depth of over three feet, and between matches, the top two layers are removed and rebuilt in order to repair any damage done to those superficial layers after a certain amount of town or games.
This process of rebuilding the court is part of what keeps that pristine red look of a clay surface.
Some Clay Isn’t Red, It’s Green
In the United States, there is a common clay surface that is trademarked as Har-Tru, which costs less to produce, install, and maintain. It does play a little bit differently than traditional clay, and even though it is technically made of basalt, it is considered to be a clay court, not a hard court.
Har-Tru courts offer a similar experience of playing on red clay, including the ability to slide into and out of shots, which is a key component of a clay game. Tennis players who look to excel on a clay surface will practice sliding drills and have specialized shoes that facilitate the slide.
Keeping the White Lines Clean
While the tennis court lines are outlined with paint or other compounds and applied permanently to other surfaces, clay courts do not utilize paint or anything similar to make the outlines. Instead, they use fabric or tape.
This allows them to be easily cleaned when players kick up too much dust and cover them, which would be a difficult task with paint or something similar.
However, having a physical item on the court does provide a tripping hazard to players, so purveyors of fine clay courts invest in strong nails placed at close intervals to ensure that the tape or fabric stays in place.
Maintaining Clay Courts
Whether looking at a red or green court, there is a steep cost to installing and properly caring for a clay surface. It doesn’t need the same care as a grass court, which is a living surface that is grown and cut, but clay is not an easy out instead of growing grass.
Maintaining a level surface is difficult on a clay court, especially after players slide around as they go after points. The surface has to be irrigated, smoothed, and agitated to specific standards in order to work effectively.
There are daily, weekly, and monthly processes that are required to maintain the integrity of the clay court, so they’re a time investment, as well. These processes are similar to a Zamboni smoothing out the ice during a hockey game or between figure skaters.
Dust to Dust
Anyone who watches tennis can tell you that the clay is not a completely uniform surface. It’s not rolled and compacted so tightly that it creates a solid playing area, and in fact, clay courts have quite a loose top layer.
The game of tennis is fundamentally different on a clay court when compared to other courts, and the slo-mo replays of Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay, sliding to return a ball show him being ferried across the court on clouds of dust.
Touching the surface of a clay court will leave red marks on your fingers, and players regularly leave a clay tennis match with their athletic outfits looking much worse for wear. But that is part of the romance of clay, and those specks of dust also cling to the tennis ball, slowing it down and giving the clay games their signature pace.
Playing in the Mud
Hydration is a critical part of maintaining a clay field. If the surface is over-watered it becomes untenable for the tennis players and traps the ball completely instead of simply slowing the bounce.
Clay courts are covered with protective tarps when it begins to rain, but various irrigation techniques are employed to help the court drain and dry in the event of a surprise storm.
The French have a phrase, “en tout cas” (French for “in any case”), and it refers to a court that has an additional top layer made up of coarser red pieces in order to promote drainage.
Har-Tru courts offer faster drying than traditional red courts, and this is another factor in their appeal to many clubs who want to offer clay but would struggle with keeping red clay appropriately watered.
Whether playing on red or green clay, this surface brings about a change in the game of tennis that fans know and love. But these courts are anything but simple: stacking the layers, compacting them, and then rebuilding the top layers as needed.
Clay courts offer a unique experience that comes at the cost of additional maintenance, but tennis professionals the world over have perfected the build of these clay courts, readying them for the players to perfect their game on this medium.
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