Growing up in a tennis-loving household, I learned one lesson very quickly: clay court tennis is not for everyone.
In fact, finding people who enjoyed it became quite difficult, and I still struggle to find a lot of love for the red dirt even now.
I do understand why it struggles for popularity, particularly in the UK. For most casual sports fans in Britain, tennis means Wimbledon. It is the quintessential British sporting event with its pomp and rules and strict traditions and quietly understated formal whites against vibrant green grass.
Bit of rain? Shuffle off inside for some civilised cucumber sandwiches and await more civilised weather.
By comparison, clay tennis seems a bit… dirty.
It’s bright orange rather than vibrant green, which naturally clashes with just about every other colour combination imaginable. The balls get stained after a couple of shots and it’s so grubby that players have to whack their shoes with their rackets every two points to de-clog them.
No cucumber sandwiches if it starts raining, either. You stay out there until such a time the nasty orange dirt becomes mud, and only then are players permitted to seek shelter.
Then there is the actual tennis too. The ATP and WTA Tours are predominantly made up of hardcourt events, and hardcourt tennis is blink-and-you-miss-it fast, and terrible exciting.
By comparison, clay court tennis is, to quote a text from my mother-in-law during the French Open, ‘like watching two slow old codgers’
But, the thing is, I don’t actually care about any of that. I absolutely love clay court tennis, and I am happy to tell you why.
Power isn’t everything
Don’t get me wrong – I know power is important in clay court tennis. If you can hit through an opponent it’s an advantage. However, power isn’t the only way to win like it can be on other surfaces.
Essentially, the surface takes much of the pace out of the ball when it bounces and replaces it with fragments of clay that add weight, making it progressively harder to hit big powerful winners.
If you can’t reliably hit through someone, then you’re going to need to find another way, and for that you’re going to need a lot of tricks up your sleeve.
Drop shots and lobs become big weapons, and cerebrally constructing a point to force your opposition off the court and open it up for yourself is more crucial that ever.
Tennis is just a more joyous sport when you have no idea what’s coming, and with so much variation comes so much more unpredictability.
Okay, so this one can be a double-edged sword. It would be nice if longer rallies always equated to better tennis, but we all know that’s not true.
Two defensive players could endlessly hit balls between them simply waiting for the other to make a mistake, and it’s painful for the viewer.
Clay court tennis certainly has its share of those points and, in fairness, it also has its fair share of rallies that fizzle out with a whimper due to tiredness of the players.
That said, there is definitely greater potential for long, absorbing points in clay tennis that can slowly pull you to the edge of your seat while they build to a big thrilling finale.
It tests the greatest players
Have you ever looked through a list of players who failed to win a single French Open title in their careers?
Andy Murray (so far), Lindsay Davenport, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras… Pete Sampras for goodness sake!
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have won it, but only once a piece.
Clay exposes your weakness as a player and can strip away your weapons. It forces great players to leave their comfort zones and try to find another way, and how could that NOT be fascinating to watch?
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