One of the unique aspects of tennis is the fact that it is played on numerous surfaces throughout the year. The three main surfaces are all featured in at least one major, as hard, clay and grass courts all play differently.
They all have different characteristics that make them truly unique, but there are several unique challenges on one type of surface in particular.
What is the hardest surface to play tennis on? Clay courts are regarded as the hardest surface to play tennis on. Clay courts offer a unique challenge that hard and grass don’t. Points tend to be longer on clay, and changing direction is very difficult. People also need to factor in uneven bounces, the different types of clay, how play changes in different weather and more.
What Makes Clay Such A Difficult Surface?
Clay makes the game of tennis just a little more difficult all the way around. About the only advantage clay has is the fact that the ball slows down just a little bit for people to have more time to prepare for shots. Of course, most players need that extra time to move around the court and get in the proper position.
As for the difficulties, there are plenty of them. It exposes players who might have a weakness in their game. There is no hiding weaknesses in clay court tennis, because a good opponent will be able to exploit that weakness with extra time.
The Slowest Surface
Some might view a slower surface as an advantage, but it is also a disadvantage in some scenarios. Hitting an outright winner is much more difficult on clay courts compared to hard and grass. This forces a little more consistency, or for a player to go for bigger shots than they normally would. Unforced errors are common for those who are trying to hit winners and forcing the issue.
There is a lot of friction that affects the tennis ball on clay courts. The friction increases even more if the weather conditions are damp. The ball easily slows down, bounces pretty high and makes it a perfect surface for defensive players to stay back and block balls back.
Big servers struggle on clay courts because they can’t hit as many powerful aces. With their serve neutralized, it becomes very challenging to play a certain style of tennis. Usually, they have to adapt, or they make an early exit at a tournament.
On hard courts, tennis players can change directions very easily. Even though a lot of professional players slide a little bit on hard courts, there is absolutely no need to do that.
On grass, the sole of grass court tennis shoes make it pretty easy to change direction as well. It can get slippery in a hurry if some moisture is on the court, but most of the time, play is suspended if that is the case. Grass court shoes do their job otherwise.
With clay courts, it is meant to be slippery. Players can’t use cleats like in baseball or football, so the result is a lot of sliding into shots and pushing off for a change in direction. A common clay court shoe will have a herringbone pattern that helps a player slide and stop when they have to.
Players who don’t grow up on clay courts find this very difficult to learn as they get older. It is one of the major reasons why players from the United States have not fared particularly well at the French Open. Clay courts are much more popular in Europe and South America. The United States is trying to change that with some new training courts, but it’s a slow process. It can take years for a player to feel confident on clay.
Playing on clay courts is an absolute adventure in a lot of ways. Clay courts tend to be the most uneven courts in tennis, and the longer a match goes, the more uneven the surface gets. It is particularly challenging at the recreational level, since players don’t have the luxury of dragging the surface during breaks. Clumps can form, ruining any hope of a consistent bounce.
The lines also cause some very unique bounces if the ball hits them just right. They aren’t painted on like with hard courts and grass courts, but a different material altogether. If the ball bounces squarely off a line, it can take a bounce that is impossible to handle. This often results in a free point for the lucky shotmaker on the other side of the net.
Bigger Skill Gap On Clay
Since clay is such a challenge, and it is pretty unique compared to all the other surfaces, a few players tend to play much better or much worse during that time of the year. Many players on tour consider themselves to be clay court specialists, and all of their success comes on the surface.
The dominance of Rafael Nadal at the French Open, and clay in general, shows just what a wide gap there is. He is occasionally challenged, but those who are not comfortable on clay have no chance of beating him. On hard courts and grass courts, he is vulnerable for an upset at nearly any time.
It takes a very confident player to have success and believe in their shots on clay courts. Some players feel defeated by the surface before they even take the court. It is so bad for some players that they tailor their schedules so that they don’t have to play too many clay court tournaments. It doesn’t make sense for a player to go to a clay court tournament and lose in the first round, when they could possibly advance a lot further on hard courts.
Red Clay vs. Har-Tru Courts
When people talk about clay tennis courts, most think of the red clay found at Roland Garros. It is a common surface found throughout the continent of Europe, and in South America as well. Players in the United States don’t see it nearly as often.
Instead, a green clay known as Har-Tru is the most common alternative solution. It is a little easier to maintain, and a cheaper option for clubs that want to offer clay court tennis. A lot of older people like playing on clay courts, because it’s not as painful on the body.
Both surfaces slow the ball down very well, and they have similar bounces as well. Not only that, but sliding is pretty consistent on both surfaces. Some people have their own personal preference, but if colored the exact same way, a lot of players would not be able to tell much of a difference.
How Are They Different?
Red clay is a natural form of clay that is found in certain parts of the world. The main reason why clay courts are not readily available in the United States is that the clay needs imported. Har-Tru is something that is manufactured, and it is developed in a way that keeps the cost down as well.
Red clay tends to cake up a little more when it rains a lot. This means that even though both surfaces can take a decent amount of water, Har-Tru is going to dry out a little more quickly.
Overall, Har-Tru plays slightly faster, because it is usually packed to be a little harder than red clay. It’s still a reasonable option for clubs to go with that do not have red clay is readily available.
The clay court surface has been around for a very long time, and it certainly isn’t going away any time soon. Although some players don’t particularly like playing on clay, there is no doubt that it adds some variety to the game. The tennis tours would be pretty boring if every tournament took place on the same exact surface.
Each year at the pro level, there is a clay court season in the spring/early summer. In order for a player to truly be a contender at the highest level, they must be able to at least play adequately on the surface. Going that whole part of the season without winning many points will put a player at a severe disadvantage.
Clay courts also serve their purpose for recreation players as well. Younger players can learn how to craft points and stay in rallies. Older players don’t have to feel all the wear and tear on their bodies as they try to play consistently. There is a lot more give with clay courts, so that keeps a lot of pain away.
Give playing on clay a chance if possible. Most of the time, court fees are pretty reasonably priced. It might be a slight premium compared to hard courts, but nothing too unreasonable.