? Grasscourts vs Claycourts – The Debate20th July 2020 |
We take a look at the differences between grasscourt and claycourt tennis and pick out the greatest players down the years on each surface.
? Grasscourt tennis: The keys to success
The lush green grasscourts of Wimbledon – heck, even the well-worn ones of finals weekend – stand out in the mind of many a tennis fan, but conquering the famous lawns has often proved beyond even the best tennis players. The reason? The surface throws up unique challenges that hinder players with certain game-styles.
For example, the ball bounces lower, tending to skid through more than on other surfaces. This makes the slice a good weapon.
The grasscourts therefore tend to be faster, hurting the chances of players who take big swings at the ball – think Stan Wawrinka’s arcing backhand.
That higher speed favours those with a big serve and an attacking game – serve-volleying has traditionally been a tactic which has reaped success. Given these aspects, rally length has tended to be shorter than on other surfaces.
‘Traditionally’ is a word which has been purposefully chosen as, in recent years, many professional grasscourt tournaments, including Wimbledon, have deliberately slowed the game down, either by using different types of grass or by a specific ball.
This followed criticism of a lack of rallies (due to those big servers having an advantage) and a boycott of the grasscourt season by some claycourt stars.
It is widely acknowledged that the surfaces in the professional game have, to a certain extent, become ‘homogenised’. So over the last 15 years or so, there have been many more baseline points on grass with serve-volley tactics now rare.
On the professional circuit, the current-day grasscourt season is essentially a five-week swing, starting after the French Open in early June and stretching through to the conclusion of Wimbledon in early-to-mid July.
Grasscourt tennis was previously played much more widely – both the Australian and US Opens were played on the surface at the start of the Open Era. However, grasscourts are expensive to maintain so many have since been replaced by hardcourts.
? Claycourt tennis: What game style wins on clay?
Clay is at the opposite end of tennis’ speed spectrum to grass, producing some of the sport’s slowest conditions.
On clay, the ball bites the surface more, therefore slowing down after it hits the court and bouncing up higher.
Players who generate a lot of top spin – think Rafael Nadal – enjoy a lot of success, kicking the ball up high into awkward hit-point positions for their opponent.
In general, the slower surface speed produces longer rallies with defensive players enjoying greater success than on grass. You will often see players sliding on the surface to get to wide balls – a skill which must be performed well to win on the crushed brick.
With winners more difficult to hit on clay – especially in cold, damp conditions – the good retrievers have an even better chance of getting balls back into play and grinding opponents into submission.
Claycourt tennis is therefore seen as the sport’s ultimate physical test, especially in best-of-five play.
The surface is not good news for the big servers, whose main weapon is negated.
It is worth noting that while most claycourts are red, other types do exist. Green clay is fairly common in the USA and tends to produce faster conditions than its better-known counterpart.
In terms of a pinnacle, the French Open is the big goal on the clay for the pros. It comes at the end of a European claycourt season which begins in early April and continues until early June.
Many other claycourt events are sprinkled through the ATP and WTA calendars, with the men playing a month-long swing in South America, a continent that has produced many a claycourt specialist, in February.
? Grass greats
Tennis history shows great serve-volleyers have been among the best-ever players on grass.
Think Pete Sampras, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, and John McEnroe.
Sampras’ fearsome serve was also a huge weapon on the slick grass, and the same could be said about Boris Becker.
Martina Navratilova is arguably the greatest female grasscourter – she won the Wimbledon singles crown no fewer than nine times.
Steffi Graf also enjoyed great success on grass. The German perfected the slice to add to a strong serve, a combination which brought her seven titles in SW19.
In the modern era, during which grass conditions have slowed somewhat, it has been easier to win grasscourt titles from the back of the court, although volleying skills can still reap their rewards.
Roger Federer has mastered the Wimbledon grass, winning eight titles, while Novak Djokovic has now won it on five occasions.
Sisters Serena and Venus Williams have dominated the biggest grasscourt tournament. Two of the biggest servers ever in the women’s game have also covered the court superbly and between them have won 12 titles at the All England Club – Serena seven and Venus five.
? The kings and queens of clay
Current star Rafael Nadal will undoubtedly go down as the greatest claycourter ever.
He has won the French Open a record 12 times, doubling the previous title record of Bjorn Borg, another of the clay kings.
Nadal once won 81 consecutive matches on clay, going unbeaten on the surface for more than two years.
Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten is another of the surface legends – he won the French Open three times between 1997 and 2001. Ivan Lendl was also a three-time champion and is a famous example of a great who could never truly translate his success on clay to the grass. Lendl missed out on the career Grand Slam by failing to win Wimbledon, although he did twice reach the final.
A list of classic serve-volleyers who never won the French Open helps highlight the differences between the surfaces.
Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker never won at Roland Garros. Neither Sampras nor Becker even made the final, with the latter failing to win a single title on clay in an otherwise stellar career.
On the women’s side, Chris Evert is widely regarded as the greatest exponent of claycourt tennis, finishing her career with 70 titles on the surface.
She won the French Open seven times and between August 1973 and May 1979 posted an incredible unbeaten run of 125 matches on clay.
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