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Why is the French Open more likely to produce first-time and one-time Grand Slam champions than the Australian Open, Wimbledon or the US Open? Why so many surprising results at Roland Garros? What distinguishes its red soil from the surfaces used in the three other major tennis tournaments?
The French Open is the only Grand Slam tournament held on clay courts – which are actually not made of clay, but rather red brick dust on a layer of crushed white limestone.
Wimbledon, which begins this year on June 27, is famous on grass. The US Open, which begins on August 29, and the Australian Open, which is held in January, each use a different type of hard court.
The softness and speed-absorbing grip of clay courts slows shots more than other surfaces, dampening fast serves and groundstrokes. The gritty texture of clay amplifies the effect of heavy spin (think 13-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal’s uppercut forehand), creating higher arcs as balls bounce off the floor.
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“Clay is a completely different surface to hard courts and grass,” said Tamara Zidansek, who reached the semi-finals in Paris a year ago when ranked 85th. “It’s such a specific surface.”
Because the booming serves and fast forehands that so many players rely on aren’t as effective on clay as they are on hard or grass courts, there’s an increased reward for strategy, for shifting and rotation, for amortizations.
“On clay you have to hit a lot of balls to win matches. If you’re not 100 per cent sure, it really shows,” said International Tennis Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova, who has won two of his 18 Grand Slam tournaments. titles at Roland-Garros. “It’s harder to win games when you’re not playing well.”
Katerina Siniakova, a Grand Slam doubles champion who beat then No. 1 Naomi Osaka in the third round in Paris when she was ranked 42nd in 2019, described the effect of clay this way: “It really have to earn the point. It’s not as easy as hard courts to earn a point, because it’s not that fast. A more creative player can play better on clay and use that as an advantage for him. You can’t use that many slices or drop shots on hard courts.
Stitches tend to be longer. The matches too: the women’s matches in Paris last year lasted an average of 1 hour, 39 minutes, 42 seconds; that’s 3 minutes longer than the US Open, over 6 minutes longer than the Australian Open and over 8 minutes longer than Wimbledon. Men’s matches – which are best of five sets; the women are the best of the three – averaging 2 hours, 39 minutes, 24 seconds in 2021, 11 minutes longer than at the Australian Open and 6 minutes longer than at Wimbledon. Matches at the 2021 US Open lasted an average of 2 hours, 50 minutes, 35 seconds, but were shorter than at Roland Garros in previous years over the past decade.
All surfaces can be affected by temperature, but clay courts tend to change more in extreme heat and cold – Nadal’s quarter-final victory over the No. 1 seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic in Paris on Tuesday night was challenged with the temperature in the 50s Fahrenheit (teenagers Celsius) – or a wet or windy day.
“The grass is changing a bit, but I feel like the clay is alive. You have to play with it,” said Felix Auger-Aliassime, a US Open semi-finalist last year. “Sometimes the clay court is drier and the bounce is going to be different. Other weeks it’s very wet and very soft and it plays out differently. The whole clay swing, week to week , the conditions change a lot.”
It can be as simple as the wind blowing dust off the top of the Roland Garros court, creating thicker or thinner patches.
“I feel like people forget sometimes, because it’s red and it looks the same, but they don’t see the amount of clay,” said Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic , who grew up playing mostly on indoor hard courts in Switzerland. “They don’t see how it changes. They don’t see how fast it is or how hard it is. You can’t see that on TV.”
Footwork is crucial on clay, allowing players to slip into shots. The trick is to do it right.
Bencic, for example, says that her open way of hitting and her lack of playing on clay growing up made that aspect more difficult for her.
“My movement is not really made for clay. I have a huge advantage on grass because of my position,” she said. “I have to think about it on clay. It doesn’t come naturally.”
Some players, especially European or South American, learn the sport on clay. People agree that this can be a significant benefit.
“A lot of guys think it’s… their ‘home’ surface, kind of what they grew up playing on. It’s what suits their game and so they’re a lot more comfortable than me,” Taylor said. Fritz, an American 13th seed in Paris who lost to Bernabe Zapata Miralles, a Spanish qualifier ranked outside the top 125. “And maybe I wouldn’t lose to a lot of those people on hard court, but on a clay court, on any given day, there are definitely more people I could lose against.”
There are far fewer events on clay than on hard courts. The ATP calendar for 2022 includes 39 tournaments on hard courts, 12 on clay and eight on grass. The current WTA schedule for this season shows 30 on hard courts, 14 on clay and seven on grass.
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So it stands to reason that pros might prefer to focus their efforts on the most frequently used surfaces.
Also, as Djokovic explained, there is an adjustment when the European clay circuit that leads to the French Open arrives.
“Historically, it’s always taken time and several tournaments to really feel comfortable playing on clay,” he said. “I rarely felt at my best on clay in the first or second tournament of the season.”
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