The Stresses of Playing on the French Open’s Clay Courts

Andy Murray knocking clay from his shoe during a first-round match at the 2016 French Open.CreditCreditIan MacNicol/Getty Images

Of the 67 tournaments on the 2019 ATP Tour schedule, 38, including the Australian and United States Opens and year-end championships, are played on hard courts, both indoors and out.

Twenty-one, most notably the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris, are contested on clay. And eight take place on grass. Wimbledon, the crown jewel of the sport, is one of them.

On the WTA Tour, 37 of the 59 tournaments this year take place on hard courts, 16 on clay and six on grass.

On both professional tennis circuits, players must not only traverse the world, playing in Delray Beach, Fla., one week, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the next and then Indian Wells, Calif., the following week, but they must also be adept at transferring their skills to the different court surfaces. As Tevye said in “Fiddler on the Roof”: It isn’t easy.

The way a player adapts depends on the player and the surface. Grass, with its slick veneer and tricky bounces, is friendly to tall players with big serves who don’t like long rallies and are comfortable going to the net.

Rafael Nadal, foreground, playing a backhand return to Dominic Theim on his way to winning last year’s French Open final.CreditOlivier Morin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

European red clay courts demand peak physical conditioning, the agility to chase drop shots with a millisecond’s notice, the dexterity to slide across the baseline and the perseverance to sustain 30-stroke points.

Hard courts, which some players call the great equalizer, offer truer bounces but still favor power hitters with tactical diversity and great foot speed.

The three surfaces require different physical, technical and tactical skills, but clay demands greater mental and emotional stability, especially when a match can last five hours or more.

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“I think on clay the mental and physical part come together a lot,” said Dominic Thiem, the defending French Open runner-up to Rafael Nadal. “If you know you’re fit and you’ve worked a lot, you know you can play for three, four, five hours or however long it’s necessary. So that makes it easier to go into a match. For me, the clay is also easier on the mind because I know if I get down an early break I can always get a chance to break back. On grass, if you have one bad game, especially against a good server, the set can be gone.”

The psychological aspect of playing long matches on clay is about to get even more difficult than at the other majors. This year, for the first time, Roland Garros will be the only Grand Slam event that will not use some form of a tiebreaker in the final set. The Australian Open changed formats this year to allow for a super-tiebreaker (the first to reach 10 points by a margin of two) at 6-6 in the fifth set for men and the third set for women.

Wimbledon will use a conventional tiebreaker (first to seven points by a two-point margin) at 12-12 in the final set, ensuring no recurrence of last year’s semifinal between Kevin Anderson and John Isner that stretched to a 26-24 fifth-set win for Anderson that required six hours and 36 minutes and left him depleted for his final against Novak Djokovic, who won in straight sets. In 2010, Isner defeated Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set in a match that lasted 11 hours over three days.

Chris Evert at the French Open in 1986. She won seven singles titles at Roland Garros.CreditGetty Images

The U.S. Open introduced the tiebreaker at 6-6 in the final set in 1970.

“Patience is such a big factor on clay,” said Chris Evert, a seven-time French Open singles champion. “On a hard court, you could win with power alone. On clay, footwork, placement and thinking are more important. For me, it was all about having that extra second or two because everything was slower. With that extra time, I didn’t have to react as fast or rely on twitch muscles. It was a luxury that allowed me more time to contemplate my next move.”

Clearly, there are technical advantages that have allowed Nadal to win 57 of his 80 titles on the dirt, including 11 of the last 14 French Opens. Nadal, who grew up on red clay in Majorca, possesses a huge, looping lefty forehand that he can massage into the tiniest openings on the court. The softer surface is gentler on his achy knees and allows him to slide into the ball instead of being forced into abrupt starts and stops. Most important, Nadal said he believed in himself most on clay.

“On clay, there’s a mixture of strategic and emotional that you’re constantly dealing with,” said Allen Fox, a sports psychologist and former top American player. “The strategic is that it’s slower, and you have more time to think and be patient. But you don’t want to give up the game that you usually play. If you’re an aggressive, attacking player, you don’t want to suddenly become a body puncher.

“Emotionally, clay is hard because if you’re not prepared for the longer points, you’ll try to end them too quickly and get into trouble,” he said. “Then you’re more likely to get frustrated and angry. Once you’re unhappy with the surface, your game will deteriorate. And once that negativity takes over, you’re done.”

Fox, who wrote the book “Think to Win: The Strategic Dimension of Tennis,” thinks that Nadal has supernatural powers that allow him to be mentally stronger on clay than just about every other player.

“Rafa can concentrate 100 percent longer than the other guy,” Fox said. “He plays every point long and hard and has a marathon mentality. And because time is a factor in tennis, more so than in other sports, a person may be very good for an hour or two, but not so much for three or four hours.”

John McEnroe, left, and Ivan Lendl during the French Open singles final in 1984. Lendl won the title.CreditSteve Powell/Getty Images

There are plenty of players who have succeeded on all surfaces. Bjorn Borg won six French Opens and five Wimbledons in the 1970s and ’80s, three times succeeding at both within weeks of each other.

Evert won seven times at Roland Garros, three at Wimbledon and six times at the U.S. Open, while Martina Navratilova captured nine Wimbledons, four U.S. Opens and two French Opens. Nadal has won Wimbledon twice and the U.S. Open three times, and Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic have wins at every major. Steffi Graf won six French Opens, seven Wimbledons, five U.S. Opens and four Australian Opens.

Then there are those great players who couldn’t master all surfaces. John McEnroe won the U.S. Open four times and Wimbledon three times, but couldn’t win on the clay at Roland Garros. Neither could Pete Sampras, who won Wimbledon seven times in eight years. It took Roger Federer 11 chances to win the French. Neither Ivan Lendl nor Monica Seles ever won Wimbledon.

“I really think that too much is made of playing on different surfaces,” said Lendl, who won the French Open in 1984, ’86 and ’87.

“I grew up playing on clay, so I didn’t know anything else and that was more natural for me,” he said. “I understood that the points were longer, there could be bad bounces, that the serve didn’t mean as much and that there could be more ebbs and flows in the match.

“But the bottom line is that no matter what surface it is, you just have to execute and play your tennis,” he said. “You can’t go on the court with that in your head. You can’t overthink everything. That just complicates it. The beauty and genius in this sport is simplifying things. Just get out on the court and play.”

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