The vast majority of tennis tournaments around the world are played on courts which could be described as ‘hard’ or ‘clay’. There are several different versions of each, but both categories of court have some unique characteristics.
In this article we will compare clay vs hard courts to illustrate the impact different surfaces have on the game of tennis.
Characteristics Of Clay And Hard Courts
There are two principal types of clay court. Either will have base layers which provide solidity and smoothness, as well as facilitating drainage. The court types are normally described using the colour of the surface layer, which is a powdery layer of a material with a texture rather like sand.
A red clay court has a surface consisting of a coarse layer of a crushed material such as brick. A green clay court is normally surfaced with a layer of crushed metabasalt, often known as Har-Tru. Both types of court are characterised by the loose surface layer which makes them feel soft underfoot.
Hard courts consist of layers of asphalt or concrete topped, in more expensive versions, by a layer of cushioning. The courts which are used in tournaments are generally topped with an acrylic surface layer or paint. Some clubs have ‘all-weather’ hard courts topped with a layer of painted tarmac.
The major distinction between hard and clay courts is the fact that the former have a smooth, solid surface whereas the latter are topped with a layer of loose material. This has a number of consequences.
Ball Behaviour On Clay vs Hard Court
The different construction of the court surface means that the ball bounces very differently on clay and hard courts. On a clay court, the surface absorbs some of the energy when the ball strikes it, resulting in the ball bouncing off the surface relatively slowly. This makes it more difficult to hit winners, as it gives your opponent more time to retrieve the ball.
Due to the nature of the surface, clay courts tend to produce long, tough rallies in which players attempt to grind their opponent down. They also reward drop shots, as players will tend to set up well behind the baseline, and a short ball will not bounce that high, as a result of the softness of the court. The surface tends to become rutted during play, so there can be some bad bounces.
“IBI14_Fabio Fognini” by Vale Alemanno is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Hard courts typically play quicker than clay courts, due to the smaller amount of energy absorbed by the court surface. The ball will bounce higher and faster on a hard court. Although this is not really relevant to professionals due to the frequency of ball changes, these courts wear the felt off the tennis balls relatively quickly, which can result in fairly substantial changes in playing characteristics over the duration of a match.
Aside from the issue of ball wear, a hard court will provide a predictable, consistent bounce throughout a match. Drop shots are less effective than on clay courts due to the faster, higher bounce.
There are some players who have built a career around their performances on just one of these surfaces. Any genuine clay-court specialists are likely be from South America, where most courts are clay and from where it is very costly to travel to events on other surfaces in different continents.
Hard court specialists are rarer in today’s game, but they will generally be players who learned to play on hard courts and who have never really mastered the movement patterns required on clay courts.
Most professionals have learned to at least play competently on all tournament surfaces. This does require them to adapt their movement and tactics accordingly.
For example, it is helpful to slide into position for certain shots on clay courts, moving quickly and saving energy, and it is very difficult to compete at the highest level on the surface without having mastered this skill.
Players must also be patient on clay courts, as it is unlikely to be possible to blast an opponent off the court with power hitting on such a slow surface. Instead, aggressive shots with plenty of spin can be used to produce a cumulative effect, and drop shots and volleys can be employed as variations. High levels of fitness are required.
Hard courts do not require players to slide, although many have learned to do so. They reward aggressive players, and it is not necessary to employ as much spin as might be needed on clay. Rallies can be shorter, and powerful serves can be more effective.
To succeed on hard courts, players will need to perfect a slightly different movement style, with less sliding, and will benefit from flattening out some of their shots to gain extra pace. They will still need to be highly trained and strong, as hard courts can be tough on the joints.
Maintenance And Durability
Clay courts require quite a lot of maintenance. The surface needs to be swept following use, in order that a smooth surface is presented for the next users. Watering is also critical, and is required several times per day during a dry summer, in order to prevent the surface from becoming bumpy and dusty.
If properly maintained, clay courts should last for many years, although new topping material will need to be added periodically. Due to their ability to absorb moisture, a modest amount of rain should not prevent them from being played on.
In comparison, hard courts require little maintenance. There is no requirement for sweeping or watering. However, after a few years of use, the surface layer will become worn, and repainting will be required.
Hard courts can also be prone to accumulating layers of algae or other slippery material emanating from nearby vegetation. It will be necessary to thoroughly clean them from time to time to maintain the grippiness of the surface. Acrylic courts will become very slippery in damp conditions, and cannot be safely played upon until they are dry.
Eventually, the asphalt or concrete under a hard court will begin to deteriorate and will need to be replaced at considerable expense. Nonetheless, hard courts can last for around a decade of regular use.
Tournaments And Players
On the ATP Tour in 2016, 56% of tournaments were held on some kind of hard court, whilst 33% took place on a clay court. This pattern has not changed greatly since, so hard court events form the majority, but there is still plenty of opportunity for players to compete on clay.
At Grand Slam level, of course, the Australian and US Opens are held on acrylic hard courts, whereas the French Open is competed for on red clay. Although most players are adaptable enough to succeed on both surfaces to an extent, there are some whose achievements on their strongest surface are particularly outstanding.
There is little doubt that Novak Djokovic is the greatest hard court player ever to play the game. As at April 2023, he has won 13 Grand Slam titles on hard courts, including a remarkable 10 Australian Opens, and 27 hard court Masters events. He has won 88.6% of the matches he has played at hard court Grand Slam tournaments.
Djokovic’s success partly emanates from his playing style, which is perfectly suited to hard court tennis. He is not a particularly heavy spinner of the ball, but his movement, accuracy and shot depth are second to none. He is renowned for his effective use of sliding on hard courts- with characteristic attention to detail he uses specially modified shoes to facilitate this.
Rafael Nadal is the undisputed all time king of clay. He has won a staggering 14 French Open titles, and between April 2005 and May 2007 he won 81 successive matches on the surface. Throughout his entire career, as at time of writing, he has won 91.3% of all of the matches he has played on clay courts.
It is astonishing to think that in 18 visits to date, Nadal has only ever failed to win the French Open on four occasions. His unique style is based on using his excellent fitness and strength to produce relentless heavy spin, and making it exhausting for players to stay with him during matches. In his latter years, he has made more use of his volleying skills and improved his serve in order that he can occasionally shorten points.
1. Why is tennis on clay so different?
Clay courts are soft with a loose surface, which means that they slow the ball down and encourage long, gruelling rallies. It is helpful to slide into position for some shots, so the game looks different on clay both in terms of movement and style of rally.
2. How do you slide on hard courts?
It is not something that should be encouraged for beginners or seniors, but players like Djokovic can slide effectively on hard courts. This requires flexibility to get into the best position, and strength to avoid accidental hyper-extension of joints. A lot of practice is required to master this skill, and Djokovic uses specially designed shoes to assist him.
If you are keen to try sliding on hard courts, this YouTube video from ‘Foot Doctor’ will help with the technique.
3. Clay vs Hard Court Tennis Balls. What is the difference?
Hard courts wear the felt off tennis balls very quickly, so hard court balls tend to have a thick outer layer of durable felt to enable them to remain playable for longer. This type of ball is not suitable for clay courts, as the sandy surface would tend to make the thick felt layer fluffy, resulting in a slow, dead-feeling ball. Hard court balls also tend to pick up too much moisture from clay courts.
A clay court ball generally has an outer felt layer with a higher wool content and shorter nap, this being woven more tightly than on a hard court ball. Due to the tighter weave, the ball is less likely to absorb clay and fluff up. In addition, it will not absorb so much moisture, so it is unlikely to become excessively heavy.
In this article we have compared the basics of clay vs hard court surfaces. To summarise:
- Clay is slower and softer, and encourages sliding.
- Hard courts are more stressful on the joints but can reward attacking play.
- Clay courts require more day-to-day maintenance, but can last longer.
- Poorly maintained hard courts can be dangerously slippery.
- The majority of professional tournaments are played on hard courts, but there are still a lot of clay court events.
- Players need to adapt their style to succeed on both surfaces.
- Djokovic is the best ever on hard courts, whereas Nadal deserves that accolade on clay.
- Heavier, more durable tennis balls are needed on hard courts.
Which surface do you prefer and why? Let us know via the comments.
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