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Adjusting To Clay Courts

Q. “I have played championship tennis on hard courts for 55 years. Now that I am retired, I have considered playing on clay courts ONLY because others my age play a lot on clay. My game, shot selection, balance, mobility, serve, service return and other strokes are good for hard courts. My recent experiences on clay indicate that I will need to change much of my game to be equally successful.

Question: What are the chances that I can do that? How long will it take? And what would be the best way forward, since I am living in a town with few clay courts and few clay-court players?"

From Derek D., Louisville, KY:

I began playing as a junior, like most, on the “unforgiving” hard courts. I am lucky enough to play in a public club that has both hard and clay courts. I now prefer clay courts over hard courts, and I am “only” 40 years old. I am considered a big hitter on hard courts, so I to had to adjust my game a bit.

The main thing you need to know is to be patient. You have to construct your points better and set up your winners and not expect to hit as many outright winners. Shots that were winners on hard court were coming back to me on clay, so a tip – DON’T GET CAUGHT ADMIRING YOUR SHOT – thus, making it more important to place and be patient with your shots.

While I enjoy hard-court singles, I really love clay doubles. One of the big things to work on is the slide (see Tennischannel.com for tips) and being able to make a show while moving. Whereas on clay, they teach short, quick steps and stopping to make contact (still good idea on clay) it is not as easy on clay.

Another thing to get used to is the bounce of the ball. You must really pay attention to the type of stroke your opponent is using to read how the ball “may” bounce (or not bounce) when it comes to you. When I do play singles on clay with those unaccustomed to the surface, I use a lot of spin and slice on my shots. I absolutely love playing big topspin hitters on clay, as the ball sits up nice and pretty for you and thusly some of the rare opportunity to hit the winner.

So have fun on the clay, and keep your same game with a little more patience. Oh, and you may want to invest in a pair of shoes that is for clay playing only, as you will always have a bit of the court in them to take home with you. I keep my clay shoes in my trunk to keep the wife from throwing the vacuum at me…LOL

From Mike G., NC:

I had a similar situation when I moved from the Chicago area to Charlotte, N.C. I played mostly hard-court tennis. My current club is almost all clay courts. I started playing on clay as much as possible with as many guys as I could find for opponents and partners. I watched the better players from the gallery at my club to see what they were doing. The biggest thing I saw was that they were patient and did not mind getting into rallies. A lot of the older players use a lot of spin and cut the ball a lot. Don’t go for winners on the first couple of shots. Set up your replies and be ready to hit another ball.

From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

Jim, you have two choices: You could travel to another town with hard courts and do nothing more than drive a little further, or you can add the “Essential Ingredients” for adding clay to your game.

Just kidding! Since you have been playing championship hard-court tennis for several decades, the addition of clay court to your game should not be difficult at all. Clay court is easier on the body, for one thing, and the flight and speed of the ball after the bounce decreases.

As for how long it will take to adjust to clay, it is really up to you and your slide. The act of sliding is paramount at a championship level of play. Without a solid, smooth slide, your hard-court footwork will hinder your performance. You probably feel early on set up and unbalanced at contact. That’s because the surface topping affects your balance; meanwhile, the ball is reacting differently upon and after the bounce (especially if it catches the tape line).

By now, you must be aware that the bounce is not constant as with hard court, and the ball slows a bit -- all by-products of the surface.

Since you possess game and its attachments, this is my suggestion. For the next three days, stop playing clay matches. Whatever it takes to get clay-court time get it. Start with a freshly swept court so the topping is loose.

“Essential Ingredients”

Before you start, think back, you are a child and it is the first time you put on skates. Simply swoosh your feet on the surface, and get the feel of its movement, of the topping beneath your wheels. Notice your balance and think "skater" (ice, roller -- doesn’t matter); bend your knees slightly and swoosh left then right until you are getting grooved to it.

Once you are comfortable, start taking slides by taking a couple of quick steps to generate momentum, and slide on your dominate side. The slide should be about six inches or so. Then repeat on your other side, or you will be running around all your backhands. Learning to slide with the appropriate foot forward is critical for success. You slide on the front foot and balance and control with the trailing foot.

Increase the momentum and increase your slide little by little. Hence, take three days to allow muscle memory to do its thing. Spend no more than 30 minutes each time. Remember a 20’ slide without a winning shot is worthless without a recovery. As you practice your slide, practice your recovery. This is the tricky part, since as the song, ”I feel the earth move under my feet…” goes, getting back up and ready for the next ball is tougher in your 60s than in your earlier years. At 58, I know the feeling.

Once you have developed a reasonable slide, Jim, add your racket and start again, now moving with the racket ready and swinging at an imaginary ball. Are you still balanced 10 out of 10 slides? If so, great; if not, keep practicing.

Now add a ball. Toss a ball high enough to allow for a high bounce, and practice sliding into the shot. The bounce may move the ball away from you; however, swing your racket through the shot, even if the ball is not there, and work on staying balanced. This is putting biomechanical feedback to work. Once you are grooved with your new sliding ability, start practicing with a partner, and hone your new skills.

Besides the slide and recovery, coupled with the ball's bounce, deflection and speed changes, your stamina must improve. You have probably noticed it takes more energy on clay to really play the game. So spend a little more time on physical conditioning.

If this is not working for you, then do what I do. Find the best teaching pro, and take a few sessions to work things out. I spent eight hours with Pete Collins in February just for doubles. I drove six hours to get there, and it was worth every bit of the effort and I hold a PTR “P 3A” rating. You simply have to do what it takes to “get 'er done,” as we say in the South.

Once you are confident and strong, start playing tournaments again, remembering the fact that on any given day, you could be matched against an opponent at your level, below your level and above your level and that you may not beat him on your best day.

That’s the short of it for adding clay tennis to your game. So enjoy the game the best you came during your golden years of tennis, and keep on playing.

From John T., St. Louis, MO:

There are a lot like us making the transition. This is a very good subject to ease the onset of painful tennis.

I suggest you and your claycourt-oriented buddies create your own local clay court (given the site.) Benies, save court travel time and gas money set your own usage times and priorities. It’s a lot of fun, and you will see who is serious about transitioning to clay. And it's a lot easier on the knees and hips!

Approach 1: The easy way -- find a disrepaired hard court or outdoor basketball court and bring in some filtered fine grain or clay like dirt, just enough to create a sliding surface. (If you like red, add about two dozen crushed red bricks to tint it.) Fill the potholes and cracks, and you will have a virtual clay court. Let the dirt compact and spread unevenly on the court and work the lines until you can lay down pipe gauge for the lines, instead of using the painted lines. (Most clay courts are in bad shape because it takes effort to keep them groomed. Therefore, most clay courts you will be playing on have little knolls, dips, toe dugouts, etc. All these nuances make for a very clever game of finding the discontinuities to gain advantage of placement for creating a a bad bounce or skidder etc.)

The basic problem for your transition, if you can do it, is getting the footwork slides, direction changes and brakes down without busting yourself on the surface. (I suspect you're over 60 like me.) If you’re a skier or skater, you may find it very similar, and the transition will be easy. For someone like me at 60-plus, it took about a week (14 to 21 sets or about 10 playing hours) before I started feeling comfortable with the surface, even though I learned on red clay initially when I was nine years old. (Need labor get an Eagle Scout candidate to help play and work it with your group.)

Approach 2: The hard way -- create your own clay court with almost any fine grain dirt or clay-like dirt (baseball infield dirt or some fine dirt close to talc will do, as long as it can be compacted). Shore the court with a 1x2 wood frame buried about a 1/4 inch under the dirt to keep the court integrity. The apron can be run out of any bordering type material, like garden curbing, etc. Also, use a green clean-type total kill anti-vegetation poison to keep the weeds and green from sprouting up. (This is also good for the disrepaired asphalt court.)

Approach 3: The expensive way -- buy one. Create a fundraiser or series of fundraisers to get the financing, and get a good contractor to help you cost out the site for acquisition and maintenance.

From Anonymous:

I don't get it. Why change now? You say you only have a few clay courts and just a few clay-court players to play with. Why not just continue playing on the hard courts?

However, if you want to have even more fun at this game, get out on those clay courts and work on that drop shot, extra topspin and some lobs. Clay courts have less impact than the hard courts, you'll get longer points and need to do a lot more running.

Let’s face it. At an older age, those hard courts are hot and don't do much for the joints. Sure, you'll have problems adjusting to clay, but it will help your all-around game.

So, I say find yourself someone to play with, and get out there and take your lickin’ till you get it down. You'll be happy you did.

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

The ball sits up a little and is also slowed down a little, much more on red clay than on the American clay. Patience is key on clay, as you saw Nadal getting every ball back at the French Open, where at other events on hard and grass courts, he doesn't have the time.

Different spins work well on clay -- a heavy topspin to the backhand or a nice underspin. It is true that clay is better on the body, but it is also a grinder surface where points can be long, and it’s not the big hitter who wins but the person who gets every ball back.

The use of a drop shot is good on clay, also learning how to slide in the proper manner is important. You probably will have to have the attitude that you’re not going to hit lots of winners; just don't hit lots of errors.

I also want to congratulate Bill Lang and Rick Sommer for another Midwest Section Doubles Championship. This is one of many throughout the years!

From James R.:

Your best chance to adapt to clay-court tennis is simply to practice and play on clay as much as possible. I think if you play on clay consistently, you'll transition a lot quicker than you think.

I've grown up playing on hard courts, and I didn’t start playing on clay (hard-tru) courts until about a year ago. I've found that most of the difference came from a slight change in timing for groundstrokes, the possibility for longer points and a higher bounce. Outside of that, my game didn't change much.

If you have a more attacking, serve-and-volley style, which may not translate to clay courts too well, you may want to think about taking a few lessons to help your transition along to a game that's more suited on clay.

Finding courts in your situation may be tough, since your area doesn't seem to have too many clay courts, as you indicated in your question. If you can't find a clay court, you may want to institute some practice games that focus on consistency instead of hitting winners, since the clay can slow down some shots and give your opponents more time than they would have on hard courts.

I also wouldn't worry about finding "clay-court" players. Anyone who plays tennis on your level can play on clay courts, even if they aren't familiar with them. Maybe you and your partner can learn more about playing on clay while you are practicing.

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