Chapter 19: Tennis Courts

There are four major types of court:

1) Clay courts, either American green Har-Tru or Fast-Dry, or European-type red clay. Clay courts are soft, gentle on your feet and legs, and absorb part of the impact of the ball on the ground, slowing it down.

2) Hard courts, made of a cement or asphalt base and an acrylic surface coating. Hard courts are quite fast. To slow down the court the surface is usually roughed up by mixing the coating with sand or rubber granules. The more granules in the mix, the slower the court will play.

3) Grass courts, made of special grass, cut very short, similar to golf greens.

4) Carpets of many kinds and materials, usually used indoors.

Lines on clay courts are usually plastic tapes nailed down to the ground. Lines on hard courts are painted on the surface, and lines on grass courts are laid down with chalk or special paint.

Hard courts can stress your arm, your back and your legs. If you have the chance to learn on clay, do so. The soft surface is easier on your legs. Your feet don’t stick as they do on hard courts. Turns and pivots on clay courts are harmless and natural. Another advantage is that the bounce of the ball on the softer surface slows it down considerably, giving you extra time before the swing. Practicing on clay for a considerable amount of time reinforces the habit of reading the second curve of the ball, the one after the bounce, and adjusting to it.

On hard court surfaces, players usually do not learn at very slow speeds. From rushing and hitting hard, they get the feeling that there is no time, that they have to start swinging prior to the bounce of the ball. It is a faulty mental computation that may stay with the player for the rest of his life and interfere with the improvement of his groundstrokes.

If you always play on fast courts, you may not know the difference. But if you get to a tournament level and play on all surfaces, you’ll know.

I recall many U.S. junior champions, particularly from California, where most courts are of cement or asphalt base, playing on clay courts at the Orange Bowl, the largest international junior tournament in the world. They didn’t make it past the early rounds in singles. Players dominant in their age categories were utter failures on clay. They had extraordinary serve-and-volley games, but their hard-court-developed groundstrokes were not up to the task.

A Bit of History

Back through the ’60s and ’70s many top American players avoided the early part of the European tournament season, played on red clay, and went directly to England just prior to Wimbledon to play on grass. From there they came back to America to play several grass court tournaments in preparation for the grass courts of Forest Hills (now the U.S. Open). After that it was California and hard courts, then to Australia for the grass court tour.

Except for some great champions who were good on any surface, like Chuck McKinley, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitas, and some clay court specialists, like Cliff Richey from Texas, and Florida’s Frank Froehling, Harold Solomon, and Eddie Dibbs, most Americans had weaknesses on the slower clay. From Tony Trabert in 1955, to Michael Chang in 1989, it took 34 years for an American male to win again on the red clay of the French Open.

The American viewpoint of the Davis Cup was almost the same story. The clay courts were to be avoided. The “Challenge Round” rule was in effect–the champion nation sat comfortably at home, waiting for the elimination rounds to determine their final challenger. The sole survivor had to play, of course, on the Cup Holder’s grounds, which were usually the grass courts of Australia and the U.S. To compound this situation, the interzone finals were played in the Cup Holder’s country and usually on grass.

From the end of World War II in 1945, when the Davis Cup was resumed, until 1960, the U.S. and Australia played every single Challenge Round.

Wresting the Davis Cup from those two giants was nearly impossible. They had legions of players over the years who were masters of the serve-and-volley game, and the Davis Cup was safely tucked away.

A Different Viewpoint

Two interesting developments occurred in the 1960s, increasing the challenges to Australia and the U.S. The interzone final went to the home-and-away rule for the first time. The U.S. lost on red clay to Italy in Rome in 1961, to Mexico in Mexico City (Zone match) in 1962, and regained the Cup in 1963 in Australia on grass. At home in 1964 for the Challenge Round, the U.S. chose to play on clay and lost to Australia, then again lost on clay to Spain in Barcelona in 1965.

To simplify matters for America in the American Zone, up to that time there was a simple rule that said that the finals between the North American Zone and the South American Zone had to be played “within the confines of the North American Zone.” In the International Lawn Tennis Federation meeting in London in 1965 yours truly made the motion that this rule should be changed and replaced with the home-and-away concept. The U.S. had to go to the slow courts of South America, with some painful losses. But the presence of the U.S. team in those countries, coupled with the intense competition and the sellout crowds, spearheaded an incredible development of tennis in South America, which had been precisely the argument I put forward favoring the rule change.

The abolition of the Challenge Round system in 1972 was another blow to Australia and the U.S. Now the Cup Holder had to go through the elimination rounds the same as anyone else. The Davis Cup was finally equally open to any country, and the best teams visited many countries around the world. This made tennis grow worldwide with great intensity, a phenomenon that hasn’t stopped since.

I know that American players must sometimes feel like guinea pigs when confronted with difficult conditions and unfavorable crowds in other countries, but these players’ participation is perhaps their greatest contribution to keeping the game truly international.

Hard Courts Versus Clay Courts

Aided by clay as their main surface, countries like Spain, Romania, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Serbia. Croatia, and many others developed legions of youngsters with superb groundstrokes. Many of them made it to the top ranks.

Chris Evert of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and John McEnroe at the Port Washington Tennis Academy in Long Island, New York, were no exceptions to this rule, practicing and playing many junior tournaments on clay.

The U.S. made an excursion into using clay courts for their top tournament at Forest Hills. The stadium grass courts could not stand the wear and tear of the two-week U.S. Open Championships. Many players criticized the courts. Finally, in 1975, the grass court surface was replaced with Har-Tru, an American clay with superb characteristics including reduced physical stress on the legs, excellent drainage that allows play even in light rain, and faster speed of play than European clay courts.

European clay courts can be exhausting for a player because they are very slow and points are so hard fought that it is not unusual to see a ball going back and forth fifty times or more in just one point. The Har-Tru surface, on the other hand, can be made faster or slower by merely changing the amount of rolling done to the court, adding or scraping off loose material, as well as regulating the watering of the court.

The Har-Tru clay court surface was kept for three years. Chris Evert was invincible, winning all three championships played on clay. She actually had a clay court winning streak of 125 matches, all the way from 1973 to 1979.

On the men’s side there were many interesting matches, and Jimmy Connors made it to all three finals, winning in 1976, in perhaps his finest victory, over Bjorn Borg.

But the U.S. Open, in the wake of a huge tennis boom, needed a larger, better site, and, unlike the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, one totally under the control of the United States Tennis Association.

Perhaps because of the threat of domination of the softer surfaces by the foreign clay court specialists–such as Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Manuel Orantes, and many young overseas players–U.S. officials went to their hard court formula. They built the new home for the U.S. Open at the Flushing Meadows site of the old Louis Armstrong stadium, near La Guardia airport, in 1978.

The hard courts of that time were quite fast, and many times were painted lengthwise to make them smoother and even faster. West Coast tournaments and Davis Cup matches had shown practically no rallies, and the spectacle there and at the then new U.S. Open hardcourts was as good as an Old West shoot-out. It was a far cry from the beautiful artistry we had seen on clay at Forest Hills and in the European events, including Wimbledon’s center court, where the grass was very short (grabbing the ball more rather than enabling the skidding ball of old), slowing down play which allowed some success from the backcourt, too.

Over the years, under pressure from players and the media, hard courts at the U.S. Open and other major tournaments have been slowed down. Players can now play successfully from the backcourt. But in order to slow down hard courts the surface is made either coarser or softer, mixing sand with the coating or using rubber-like components. The resistance to turning your feet is greater than in any other court, with much higher stress on ankles, knees, and hips.

For top flight tennis players, who fight each point and each match no matter how long, this type of hard court is the most taxing in the world. Careers have been cut short due to leg and lower back injuries, while players who played mostly on clay and grass have generally had much longer careers.

A partial solution to cut down on knee injury on slow hard courts is to use smooth sole tennis shoes, except when the surface is slippery. The smooth shoe sole makes it easier to turn, diminishing the stress factor on the legs.

The Hard Court Boom

From 1975 to 1977, when the U.S. Open was played on clay courts, the major tournaments leading to Forest Hills were now on clay to foster top players’ participation. The most important part of the American tour was on clay. This started a boom of Har-Tru and Fast-Dry clay court construction in the U.S., except on the West Coast. More than 5,000 of those courts were built.
But in 1978 the U.S. Open changed to hard courts and many other American tournaments also switched. Practically all the major professional tournaments in the U.S. were either on indoor carpets or hard courts.

Following this, still in the midst of the incredible tennis boom of the ’70s, tens of thousands of hard courts were built in schools, clubs, and private homes. The U.S. Open had set the trend.
Today, the main surface for a youngster in America is fast hard courts.

And America is paying the price. Hard courts, together with the conventional teaching techniques prevalent in the U.S., have made flat hitting from the backcourt the rule. Heavy topspin is the exception of a privileged few, like Courier, Krickstein, Agassi and Chang.

U.S. players do very well around U.S. Open time, when the competition is on hard courts. But overall, with over twenty million tennis players, the U.S. is not in the commanding international position it could be. Countries with a fraction of that number of players are head and shoulders above America. From 1985 to 1991, U.S.-born male and female players captured five Grand Slam titles, vs. Czechoslovakia’s seventeen, West Germany’s fifteen and Sweden’s nine. After its 1984 final round Davis Cup loss to Sweden, the U.S. did not again reach the finals until 1990, when the aforementioned young topspin players came to the rescue and won it in the U.S.–on red clay.

It is not by accident that most of the world’s best tennis pros in the last fifteen years are players with plenty of experience and practice on clay courts in their younger years.

The most successful and famous tennis academies and training centers in the world have clay courts. Clay is a surface that helps develop key features of the backcourt strokes and the backcourt game. Hard courts, on the other hand, help develop volleys and court sense at the net.

Ideally, a player should first develop groundstrokes, then the net game. Again, if you start on hard courts and want to be good, begin at slow speeds and develop your topspin groundstrokes. Next work on the backhand slice and on your serve. Then concentrate on your net game until you volley like a pro.

Tennis associations, clubs, cities, schools and colleges must make slow courts available to developing youth. If they are clay courts, better still.

California, almost 100 percent hard courts, would do well in changing the trend.