Clay Courts Give Players Different Tennis Experience
With the professional tennis clay court season in full swing and the French Open fast approaching, St. Louis-based players may also think about taking their game from hardcourts to the softer clay surface. And the general public has that opportunity at the historic Highlands Golf & Tennis Center in Forest Park.
The Highlands — formerly known as the St. Louis Amateur Athletic Association or Triple A — is comprised of 13 green clay tennis courts. It’s not the only St. Louis facility to feature clay courts. Terry Ward, who helps manage The Highlands, estimated there are 10 other clubs in the area that likewise have clay. But while those are primarily private country clubs, The Highlands is available to the general populace.
“If they’re watching the French Open, they can’t fully appreciate what’s taking place out there on television unless they actually have played on a clay court,” Ward said. “They’ll get a sense for how difficult it is to move, slide, stop, deal with the erratic bounces, etc. By simply playing on the court gives them just a nice, better feel for what’s happening on television.”
While the French Open and many professional tennis tournaments are held on red clay, The Highlands’ trademark is its green clay. Ward explained red clay tends to be crushed brick and is more common in European and South American countries. Green clay, meanwhile, is typically crushed rock originating from the eastern portion of the United States.
“The benefit of playing on clay is the ball stays in play longer because the court is slower,” Ward said. “That’s a health benefit because the points are longer, so you get more exercise. The other thing is it’s easier on the joints because there is no hard stopping. You tend to slide into your shots.”
Ward noted the upside of a slower surface and extended rallies simultaneously is a downside for players who want their shots to move through the court more rapidly. Clay courts do the opposite, as the ball slows down upon bouncing.
“The other downside is the bounces tend to be more erratic than on a hard court,” Ward said. “And if you’re not in very good shape, the points tend to go longer. It’s a little bit of a challenge if you’re not really prepared to stay out there for a very long time.”
Ward — who has worked at The Highlands for about 15 years and additionally owns and manages Frontenac Racquet Club and Woodsmill Tennis Club — said clay courts must be brushed to smooth them out and watered regularly. Clay courts lose their firmness if not watered and “become a little bit like a sandbox,” according to Ward.
Ward said at The Highlands, watering occurs about three times a day depending on the weather. The Highlands venue features an underground watering system — which assists in improved maintenance of moisture — on four of its courts. The remaining nine courts are watered above-ground.
“The favorite part of playing there is the ambiance,” Ward said. “It’s a beautiful facility. You feel like you’re at an old-time tennis club. The courts are in very good shape. And they’ve got a nice restaurant there, so after you play tennis there is a place to go eat. It offers the full package for a tennis player.”
The Highlands is also loaded with an impressive history, as the facility got its start in 1897. All-time greats including Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe have played there. In addition, Davis Cup matches were held at The Highlands in the 1900s.
“If you’re a student of the game, it’s really a nice play to go,” Ward said. “It has a lot of nostalgia to it.”
The Highlands is also excited to announce a new director of tennis to the facility - Austin Sides. Sides comes to the Highlands from Shaw Tennis Center in Clayton, where he was a tennis pro.
The Highlands will open for the year in early May. Ward said weekends are generally more open for play than weekdays. Three of the facility’s 13 courts are lighted for play after sunset. Ward advised calling ahead to ensure court availability. The Highlands’ phone number is 314-531-7773. For more information about the facility, click here.
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