Let’s Talk About Clay.

Setting the Scene/s

Wiltshire and Devon, May 31st 2020, during the Coronavirus lockdown.

Roland Garros should be on. We should be watching Rafa cut a swathe through his opponents. We should be hoping for a third Nadal vs. Thiem final, getting ready to cheer Domi on against the most impossible challenge in sport: Rafa on clay at the French Open. Instead we have the Roland Garros YouTube channel, Rafa’s first match, and some questions about clay.

*  * *

So let’s talk about clay. In April and May the clay court season takes ATP fans on a tour from Monte Carlo, through Barcelona and Madrid, into Rome before ending in Paris. Strangely though clay courts started life in England. In the 1800s the Renshaw brothers ground up terracotta pots to spread over the grass courts to protect against the summer sun. We think you will agree that this is a wonderfully strange start. Maintaining a link to their early ancestors, modern day clay courts are not natural clay at all, but crushed brick packed to make the court. That clay made the jump to a legitimate surface is a blessing. After all, few if any sports are played on as many different surfaces as tennis. These differences have given rise to specialist players and a variety of game styles that help to make the sport exciting.

So what exactly makes a clay court player? Why is it that some players are labelled as clay-court specialists before they even achieve huge success on the surface? Dominic Thiem was being called the ‘Prince of Clay’ before he even reached his first French Open final. Other players reached their greatest achievements on clay, winning their biggest and sometimes all of their titles on the dirt, think Gustavo Kuerten or Thomas Muster.

Clay courts are considered “slow” because the balls bounce high, and points are usually longer as fewer outright winners are hit. It is the domain of long, gruelling exchanges, top spin and physical endurance. It requires stamina, balance and flexibility as players have to be comfortable sliding into shots, rather than stopping to strike the ball as one would on a grass or hard court (unless they’re Djokovic). Long matches on clay truly are a battle, where the winner has to wear down their opponent, with determination and sheer will power having just as much importance as technique. All this means clay gives birth to and favours defensive baseline players.

Clay is arguably the most divisive surface in tennis. For some it epitomises the gladiatorial, almost animalistic, aspect of the game. Fans argue that it is a surface for players with high tennis IQ’s, as strategy and problem solving are vital to success. For others the clay is the least captivating of the surfaces. The slower pace and higher bounce arguably limits the capacity for creativity and intelligence. The winner seems inevitably to be the strongest and fittest baseliner who hits the least unforced errors. Your writers fall on either side of this divide. No matter your opinion, there is something undeniably appealing about the narrative that surrounds clay. In a manner apart from hard and grass courts, clay contains records of unprecedented domination in our sport, and players who are seemingly born with surface in their blood.

Allow us for a moment to consider three such players: Rafa Nadal, Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg. Each of these players had (or are having) massively successful careers on the clay and managed the challenging task of transferring that success to other surfaces.

Let us start with Borg. Bjorn Borg won an incredible 11 Grand Slams, 5 at Wimbledon and 6 at Roland Garros, including 4 in a row. He won 251 matches on clay, 30 clay court titles and is in second place for most men’s singles titles at the French. His baseline game and heavy topspin made him the ideal clay courter. Retiring at only 26, these numbers could have been so much higher.

That’s Borg then, what about Evert? Chris Evert is one of the greatest players in history. She won all four Grand Slams at least twice, ending her career with 18 singles slam titles, including 7 at the French Open, the most of any women’s player. Three of her US Open wins also came when it was played on clay. She won an incredible 70 titles and 125 consecutive matches on the dirt. Evert was clearly a natural born clay court player. Her game was built on brilliant strokes and technique; fantastic balance and footwork; and unbelievable mental strength and concentration. The perfect recipe for clay court success.

It was hard to imagine how any player could equal, let alone beat any of Evert’s clay court records until Nadal came along. He turned pro when he was only 15, missing out on playing Roland Garros in 2003 and 2004 due to injury. But when he stepped onto court for his first-round match in 2005; baby faced, dressed in a vest and pirate shorts, he had already made a name for himself. That first win at Roland Garros was a marker of things to come. Of his 19 Grand Slams Rafa has won a record making 12 French Open titles, and a total 59 clay court titles. Of the 475 matches he’s played on clay, he’s won 436, meaning he has a winning percentage of 92%. Nadal also holds the men’s record for the longest consecutive winning streak on a surface, winning 81 clay matches in a row between 2005 and 2007. There is every expectation that he will add to this incredible haul. But why? What is it exactly that makes Nadal so insanely good on this surface?

Put simply, on clay Rafa has a plan and style that no one has figured out how to consistently beat. He is a methodical player; with tactics he consistently employs. By using a more extreme version of the semi-western grip on his forehand and allowing the racket head to drop low and lag back, he is able to brush up the oncoming ball from a more extreme angle, which generates a colossal amount of topspin. Aided by the high bounce of a clay court, this topspin forces the opponent back behind the baseline, often making them hit shots above their shoulders (something especially difficult to do with a one handed backhand) until either they miss, or their shot is too weak to have an impact on the rally. Rafa then has the choice of hitting a winner, a drop shot, or coming to net.  

Nadal is the ultimate tennis gladiator and the clay is the perfect arena. He has the best fighting spirit in tennis and would not be as successful as he is without it. Winning or losing, he will fire himself up to play each point as if it where the last, to charge after every ball and to outhit his opponent. This was evident from his very first match at Roland Garros against Burgsmüller. From the first point Rafa’s spirit was on show. Burgsmüller eventually managed to hold an incredibly long opening service game only to be broken in the next one. Throughout the match Rafa simply did not let up, leaping at every chance he was given or created. Rafa’s relentless intensity, combined with the effectiveness of his immense topspin, make him the perfect clay court player.

Added to all this your writers feel there is a third reason for Nadal’s success: prestige. Don’t get us wrong, we are in no way trying to take away from his accomplishments, prestige has to be earned. But it is undeniable that a story has been built around Rafa on clay. When he starts raining down his forehands, and screams ‘Vamos’, he becomes more than a man. Tennis is a mental game, and while every player will actively try and prevent it, questions of if and how they can possibly beat a legend must cross their minds. Even other legends aren’t immune: Roger, who has a fairly even head to head with Rafa on other surfaces, clearly doesn’t seriously believe he can beat him on clay. Now of course Roger’s game has weakness against Rafa’s on clay, but we believe this particular mental challenge is true of most players. Thiem has beaten Nadal on clay for four seasons in a row but has only managed to take one set off him at the French Open. What’s held him back isn’t skill, rather the combined facts of fighting the best clay court player in history and the internalised narrative that Nadal can’t lose at Roland Garros. Let’s hope he overcomes this if they play another final!

Rafa on clay is something truly special. Whether you support him or not, there is something mesmerising about the way he has so utterly dominated an entire surface. He truly is the King of Clay, and we are all so lucky to have seen his reign. (If Rafa is King, and Domi Prince, that must make Chrissie Queen).

Clay is a surface that tennis could not survive without. Love it or hate it, it provides its very own version of the game. Clay courts arguably allow for tennis at its most fundamental level, two opponents face each other down and hit back and forth until one of them blinks. It’s raw, gritty, powerful and emotional. And it’s truly brilliant.

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