Tennis is played on a variety of surfaces. The most common is the hard court, sometimes known as har-tru, also seen in other iterations such as DecoTurf, Plexicushion, and plain old concrete.
Then there’s clay, which also takes a number of forms, though the most common are the green that you see in most country clubs and the red of Roland Garros. Though for a while there in Madrid, we saw something akin to Boise State’s smurf turf with blue clay.
Then there’s grass, probably the most genteel surface and the hardest to maintain. It only exists in a few places, notably Wimbledon, and there the grass itself is ryegrass.
It seems weird to think that you can play tennis on something that wasn’t constructed on top of the Earth; that indeed is the Earth, but you can, and many players love it. Grass courts (I’ve heard and read, having never actually played on a real one myself) cause the ball to bounce lower and faster, thus favoring players who have powerful shots and are quick. Pete Sampras’ chief weapon, his serve, as a component of his serve-and-volley game, was absolutely devastating on the grass at Wimbledon, netting him seven singles titles. By serving his opponent out wide and depriving him of the chance to make a proper return because the serve would bounce so low, Sampras would simply come in, close off the angle of the return, and hit a volley for a winner, provided he hadn’t aced you. 15-Love, just like that. Grass accentuates speed and cuts down on a player’s margin for error, especially
Clay, on the other hand, slows down the game and accentuates the spin that a player imparts to the ball. These days, the harder you can hit, combined with the faster you can move in order to make sure you can hit as well as you can, are what makes a clay-courter great. Guys like Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg, the greatest clay court players of all time, combine great footwork and foot speed with an array of spins that are unique in their ferocity and variety. Rafa puts more spin on the ball than any other player by a long shot, and Borg was notorious for having his rackets strung so tightly that they were liable to pop strings at any moment.
Hard courts are something of a hybrid, usually involving layers of different acrylic materials to create the composite necessary for the court. Normally, they are fast, though not as fast as grass, and provide a nice counterpoint to both the clay court and grass court styles. The amazing thing to see on grass courts is the sliding. It makes sense on clay; the little beaten pellets of earth make for easy sliding. On hard courts, however, it is nothing short of incredible. The players glide around with a screech of shoe rubber not unlike a car peeling out, and it makes stopping or reaching that ball that much more graceful and easy.
Of course, other factors to take into account include the weather (hot and dry means faster, wet generally means slower) and whether the court is indoors or outdoors (indoor courts tend to be much faster than outdoor ones, not unlike grass courts at least in principle), but this is all part of what makes tennis such an amazing game to play and strategize for.
Keep it here for a season update next week, featuring my hometown tournament, the Delray Beach Open!