Hodgkinson: Chrissie On Clay
Published May 23, 2014 12:12
Doubtless during this year's clay court swing, just like every other season, you'll find yourself watching highlight reels and slow-mo montages of forehand winners raising hell and dust clouds. Set to music, the forehands will look spectacular, majestic even. And yet, to be truly successful on the dirt, players will need a quality that doesn't translate to the small or giant video screen: patience.
It was on European clay courts that Chris Evert, America's Cinderella in Sneakers and then Ice Queen, was at her most effective, with seven of her 18 Grand Slam titles coming at Roland Garros; she wouldn't have accomplished so much in Paris without being extraordinarily patient. At this time of the year when socks and shoes are being stained orange-red, patience will win matches and titles. "It's not easy putting opponents away on clay, so you have to break your opponent down. That means you need patience, as well as accurate groundstrokes and a variety of shots," said the American, whose seven triumphs came between 1974 and 1986, giving her more French Open titles than any other female player in history, with Suzanne Lenglen and Steffi Graf trailing with six tournament victories each.
In an age of instant gratification, the WTA's athletes have to play the long game on clay; it's not about going for an outright winner at every half-chance. "If you're playing a powerful opponent, you want them running around and constantly out of position," Evert said. "You have to appreciate that on clay, you're probably going to have to play three or four more shots to finish the point off. You're going to play a lot more balls than you would do on grass or hardcourts where it's easier to hit outright winners."
That's not to say that players shouldn't try surprise their opponents on clay. One strategy that Evert recommends is bringing an opponent into the service box. "The net is a vulnerable place to be on a clay court. I had some of my best successes against Martina Navratilova when we played on a clay court - Martina was a net-rusher and I used to bring her to net with a drop shot or a short ball. You're vulnerable at net on this surface as it's difficult to change direction. Once you've committed to playing, say, a forehand volley, it's difficult to move position, whether reacting to a passing shot or a lob," said Evert.
Those players who spend most of their tennis lives on hardcourts will probably feel more at ease on clay if they stand a little further back. "If you play most of your tennis on hardcourts, stand a yard further back behind the baseline. That means, with the higher bounce on clay, you will immediately feel more comfortable. But when there's the opportunity you should step in and be aggressive."
For those who didn't grow up on clay courts, one of the hardest skills to learn in tennis is sliding around in the dust. "You need to be able to slide into your shot and then get back into the middle of the court as quickly as you can. I grew up playing on clay, so I was comfortable with sliding. But those who didn't grow up on the surface need to spend as much time as possible on the surface, not just learning how to slide, but how to get back into position as fast as you can."
But, above all, you have to be patient.
Mark Hodgkinson is a tennis journalist and author based in London. His biography of Ivan Lendl will be published this month.