The French Open is upon us, and the City of Lights is being set ablaze by tennis luminaries from all over the world who are seeking to dominate the legendary clay courts at Roland Garros. There's nothing quite like watching two seasoned pros battling it out on clay--it's perhaps the most brutal and deceptive of surfaces, creating high-bouncing ground strokes, and causing even pros to lose their footing. This surface is far from static, which can sometimes almost make it seem like a second opponent.
To say that you can approach playing on clay tennis courts the same as you would grass or hard courts would be a recipe for disaster. Professional players alter their game in order to make the surface work for them and not against them. Here are some of the ways you'll see pros tweak their tennis game for clay courts.
1. Recognize that all spins will be amplified on a clay court.
Hitting a topspin shot on a clay court is like jumping on a trampoline--the results are exaggerated in proportion to the effort. In fact, all spin shots tend to be amplified by the highly responsive clay surface. Topspin shots will bounce higher, kick serves will kick out really wide and slices tend to remain low and die out quickly on clay. Since high bounce shots are some of the most difficult to return (especially to your opponent's backhand), you can use this to your advantage by becoming a "master" of spinning. Pros take the time to hone their topspin ground strokes to help them gain control of a point.
2. Understand the importance of paying attention to footwork.
Professional tennis players are well aware that changing directions quickly on a clay court can be difficult, and that sliding into a shot may be necessary at times. There's been quite a bit of debate regarding whether sliding into shots is a good or bad practice. Those who advise against sliding point out that it's quite easy to turn an ankle if your foot catches a small pebble or an uneven area of the court surface. Those with extensive experience on clay courts (think Rafael Nadal) are far more adept at sliding into shots than the average club or recreational player, which makes it somewhat of a less risky practice.
Not only are professional players typically equipped with the best shoes for that particular surface, but they also often take the time to tape or wrap their ankles for extra stability when playing on clay. So "to slide or not to slide" is a question that must take several factors into account (athleticism, experience level, appropriate footwear, etc.) before it can be answered. As far as general footwork is concerned, most pros recognize that sharpening their anticipation is one of the most vital skills for maintaining a solid footing on slippery clay courts. If your reaction time is slow or you find your response time lagging behind the ball's action, you're going to be doing a lot more slipping and sliding than you'd prefer.
3. Play far behind the baseline.
This is one of the biggest adjustments you will see the pros making on clay; more often than not, they'll be about 6 to 8 feet behind the baseline in anticipation of the deep, high-bouncing, topspin-heavy ground strokes that are typical of clay court matches.
4. Pay close attention to angles.
On a clay court, it's all about finding the right angles. If you spot any opportunities to nail some mid-range crosscourt shots at sharp angles, you have a good chance of besting your opponent on those particular points. Just be prepared to respond to your opponent's potential reply by coming up to the net once you hit the shot.
5. Focus on hitting behind their opponent.
This is one of the golden secrets of playing on clay: if you can learn how to hit a little behind your opponent, especially if you have them running from one corner to another, you can win some easy points by putting the laws of physics on your side. As mentioned earlier, clay courts do not lend themselves to quick changes of direction, so hitting a little behind your opponent will either force them to attempt a directional change--which typically translates into a low-percentage shot--or let the ball go altogether.
A clay court can be your friend or your foe; you just have to take the time to understand the characteristics and nuances of the surface, and then adjust your game accordingly. Keep the above tips in mind the next time you play on clay, and you'll be better able to make it work to your advantage - just like the pros.