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Why clay courts remain the final frontier for the world's top tennis players

The European clay court season has begun, and for the next eight weeks, the world's best players will try to pass the test of playing on this difficult surface

Rafael Nadal has revolutionised clay court tennis.
Rafael Nadal has revolutionised clay court tennis. (Getty Images)

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Daniil Medvedev is meme-worthy, that much we know. From sneakily flipping the bird to the New York crowd in 2019 to pulling off the ‘dead fish’ celebration on winning his first major at US Open 2021, he’s built quite a catalogue. One of the more entertaining, and instructive, entries was in May 2021, when Medvedev fought a losing battle against Aslan Karatsev and the clay courts at the Rome Masters. 

During the 2-6, 4-6 defeat he pleaded to the tournament supervisor, “Gerry (Armstrong) please, disqualify me. I don’t want to be here. It could get dangerous for everybody.” When reprimanded for striking his racquet in frustration against the court, he argued with the umpire that he couldn’t “damage a court that is already bad.” In the second set he was heard muttering to himself, “It’s the worst surface in the world for me. But if you like to be in the dirt like a dog, I don’t judge.”

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Medvedev is not the first to broadcast his dislike for the surface. Clay is an acquired taste. The shifting granulated dust has tripped up champions of the calibre of John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Venus Williams, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Martina Hingis. Like them, Medvedev—a Grand Slam champion and former World No. 1—is not hard-wired for the soft stuff. And as his outbursts against clay shows just how the surface not only defeats, but dismantles players ever so slowly.

The art of attrition is back in focus as the European clay season began in full swing with the start of the Monte Carlo Masters the past weekend. The first ATP 1000 event on clay of the season, it ushered in two of the most intense months of tennis. The men’s tour will travel through some historic and picturesque cities—like Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome—in the continent before concluding at the only clay court Grand Slam, the French Open: the red brick road to tennis gallantry.

What makes the clay season so gruelling is not just how long it lasts, but the demands of the surface itself.

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According to the official Roland Garros (French Open) website, clay courts came into being when British tennis stars, the Renshaw brothers Ernest and Williams, used powdered terra cotta in 1880 to cover the grass courts at Cannes to prevent them from wilting. Since then, the surface has been technically perfected. Modern clay courts are laid out in five layers: stones form the first, then at least 30cm of gravel; coal residue forms the third layer, and then comes the 7cm of crushed white limestone. The red signature brick dust is then sprinkled over the top, but is only 1-2mm deep.

As winter gives way to spring in the northern hemisphere, the tennis season shifts from hard courts to clay. The loose powered top layers make the courts slippery and slow. Players need to work on their balance, stability and lower body strength to get a sure footing on the surface. And then learn to run at full sprint on it. Before she won the French Open in 2012, Maria Sharapova had likened her movement on clay to a “cow on ice.” Unlike the stop and start movement on hard or grass courts, players developed on clay are taught to slide into the shots—in Spain it’s called skating.

Clay courts are some of the slowest on the pro tour because the soft surface absorbs more energy on impact, reducing speed and propelling the ball higher—think Rafael Nadal’s grenades laced with topspin. It is why flat hitters like Medvedev, who lost in the opening round of the French Open on each of his first four trips there, find it difficult to make a dent.

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Since the ball comes slower, players have more time to retrieve. This is why rallies, and matches, on clay courts last much longer. There are no cheap winners; almost every point is hard-earned on the surface. Which is why it is seen as the ideal classroom for budding players—easiest on the joints, it helps lay a strong physical foundation while forcing them to learn how to solve problems, to find the right shot, to experiment with speeds and spins, to add kick and slice to the serve when pure pace won’t do.

“It awakens your tennis IQ,” former Spanish player Jose Higueras, who once coached Roger Federer, was quoted by the Washington Post in 2019. “Obviously, if you learn how to play on clay, it teaches you better strategy. The surface forces you to build the points; you cannot get away with a big serve, because the ball is going to come back. It forces you to actually develop a strategy, better movement and better concepts.” 

In 2010, a year after finally winning the French Open, Federer told The Independent, “The reason why clay has not been so easy for me is that on the other surfaces I can play my game without thinking. Everything happens naturally. On clay it's not that easy. You can do it on 50 per cent of the points, but the other 50 per cent you'll just donate to your opponent because you'll be taking too many chances. I had to learn how to play from far back in the court and to use the angles better, when to attack. It was more of a geometry lesson for me.”

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There was a time—from 1981 when Bjorn Borg dropped the baton to 2005 when Nadal picked it up—when clay had almost become an alien surface to tennis players. It was the realm of dogged and seemingly dull dirtballers—the likes of Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander and Thomas Muster. These muscled men didn’t quite catch the fancy in a world dominated by serve-and-volley artists like McEnroe and Sampras. 

But as courts around the world were slowed down at the turn of the century to lengthen rallies and generate more interest, Europe became the epicentre of the game. The introduction of graphite racquets and synthetic strings made the game more dynamic, allowing players to add more spin to the ball with the down-to-up whip of the racquet. Players bred on Spanish, French and Italian clay courts started crowding the rankings. Physicality and a bulletproof baseline game became the bulwarks. Nadal was the symbol of this modern tennis warfare. And French Open the final frontier.

“Rafa can concentrate 100 percent longer than the other guy,” Allen Fox, author of the book Think to Win: The Strategic Dimension of Tennis told the New York Times in May 2019. “He plays every point long and hard and has a marathon mentality. And because time is a factor in tennis, more so than in other sports, a person may be very good for an hour or two, but not so much for three or four hours.”

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During his incredible run to 14 French Open titles in 18 years, and a total of 22 Grand Slams, the Spaniard has brought the surface to the forefront of the tennis landscape. With it he also busted the myths about clay court tennis being just about mindless defence and waiting for your opponent makes a mistake. The Spaniard preached the virtues of patience, of striking the balance between attack and defence, of embracing the struggle. Of survival.

The dustbowls amplify the gladiatorial theatre of tennis. And love it or hate it, all players, including Medvedev, will battle for a lead part in it the next eight weeks.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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