Clay surfaces can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Clay is unpredictable, mercurial and easily affected by factors such as temperature and humidity, which can make for some interesting playing conditions. As Novak Djokovic's thrilling victory and Serena Williams' stunning defeat at this year's French Open reminds us, you can never take anything for granted when playing on a clay court.
With all of the peculiarities that come along with clay surfaces, what are some things you can do to adjust your game accordingly? Below are some tips to help you optimize your game on clay, so that you can use it to your advantage.
1. Respect the bounce.
One of the first things you'll notice when you play on clay is that the ball bounces higher than it does on practically any other surface. This vibrant "bounceability" means that hitting deep shots will require your opponent to drop back far behind the baseline just to hit the ball at a manageable height.
This is an important defensive point to keep in mind as well; make sure that you're comfortable with dropping back well behind the baseline when your opponent is firing deep shots your way. In addition, learning how to add topspin to your shots will boost their bounce factor even more, making it all the more difficult for your opponent to return them.
2. Learn how to slide.
On clay surfaces, it's a little more difficult to achieve solid footing, which means that sliding comes with the territory. This can actually be an advantage in certain cases, because sliding will allow you to reach shots that you probably would miss on another surfaces.
Interestingly enough, many pros consider sliding to be a more reliable type of footwork than running on clay, especially when the surface is particularly dry. Practice sliding into various shots until you become very comfortable with how it feels; that way, it will be more difficult for your opponent to catch you off guard with a tough shot.
3. Mix up your shot selection.
Clay courts have a way of putting a damper on your hard shots, so if you're trying to emphasize power on clay, you might end up disappointed with the results. Try mixing up your shot selection, using a combination of different angles and spins to keep your opponent guessing.
When you combine your creativity with the unpredictability of a clay surface, you'll be able to reap the benefits of the element of surprise, plus you'll probably have some happy accidents go in your favor as well.
4. Be patient!
Constructing your points on clay takes time and patience. The surface is somewhat slower, which means that there will typically be longer rallies and more opportunities to run down balls. It's not as easy to rip a winner on clay, so many times patience will prevail over power.
Stay nimble, be willing to wait for opportunities, and focus on minimizing errors through careful shot selection. On clay, probably more than any other surface, the player with the fewest number of errors usually wins.
As you can see, having the clay court advantage requires a tactical approach, as well as a healthy dose of patience. Use the ideas outlined above to tailor your game for clay surfaces, so you can maintain that all-important edge in competitive play.