Clay makes you work, it also makes you think. But, most of all, it makes you wait. Impatience can be a player's undoing on what the French call la terre battue, the beaten earth.
Often, the greatest error you can make when playing on the dirt is to try for the kill-shot too early in a rally, to take a swing at an opportunity that was never there. On this surface - it's right what they say about clay court tennis, that it's a sport within a sport - you have to accept that the average point requires more work than it does on hard or grass courts. On clay, it can feel as though you have to win each point two or three times over. "Rushing the point seems to be the biggest downfall for players on clay," Lucie Safarova's coach, Rob Steckley, told wtatennis.com.
"It's never a good feeling knowing you can't hang in a rally with another player. Clay usually has that effect on players who aren't able to adapt to the surface properly - they start to rush points. You can only slap your way out of so many matches until a player comes along who can counter those balls and forces you to think about how you win. Until someone shows us otherwise, I think that the impatient types will have to hold off on their dreams of winning the French Open."
If you want to prosper in the dust, Steckley advised, you're going to have to know how to construct a point. "One of the most important qualities on clay is being able to set up points patiently. Given that it's a much slower surface, it requires players to be able to construct points a bit more and to hang in the rallies longer," said Steckley.
You will also need topspin, a slice, a high first serve percentage and a well-disguised drop shot. "Heavy topspin is an advantage on clay as the ball sits up high on players, making it harder for your opponent to finish the point and creating a safer ball to stay in the rally with. It makes it a little easier to work the ball. A good slice is always beneficial to be able to change the pace of the rallies. A high first serve percentage is key as that means you can start points with confidence and allows you to play more freely on your return games, which puts a ton more pressure on your opponent's service games. An added bonus is being able to add drop shots to the repertoire."
Sliding on clay isn't for the cameras - it's a key skill. "Being able to move properly and efficiently is another key component to being a great clay court player. Sliding is a major part of this," Steckley said. "Being able to slide into shots allows players to recover quickly and more efficiently on clay and set up for shots a lot more easily. Using the slide enables players to keep on making their opponents play one more ball and that will make it harder for opponents to end points, and that's going to test their patience. If a player doesn't have the feel for the slide, it makes it that much harder to be ready during points. The player will generally feel slow and late, which causes most players to be impatient because they will feel they need to rush because they can't hang in the rallies."
Players looking to make a successful transition to clay ought to care less about results than they do about improving their skills during the first two tournaments of the clay court swing. "Having less of a focus on results during the first couple of tournaments helps players to relax and to transition a little easier as it gives them a chance to gain confidence. Putting the focus on winning and losing can kill the confidence very quickly. The smart players understand the value of this and understand the peaking phase, which allows them to peak for the most important tournaments," said Steckley. "Planning a good clay court season is key. Once that's set, you need to get in practice between matches with the focus on movement, your serve and longer rallies. Getting use to the feel of the slide into shots is a must. The quicker you can feel comfortable on the clay, the more confident you will feel in matches."
Mark Hodgkinson is the author of 'Game, Set and Match: Secret Weapons of the World's Top Tennis Players' (Bloomsbury, May 2015)