Why the Grind of Clay-Court Tennis is a Special Tradition Worth Protecting

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistApril 25, 2014

FILE  - Sweden's Bjorn Borg, left,  is shown during a tennis match at the French Open at Roland Garros stadium in Paris on June 8, 1980. At right, Spain's Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Switzerland's Roger Federer Sunday, June 5, 2011 in the men's final of the French Open tennis tournament in Paris. Nadal equaled Bjorn Borg's record of six titles at Roland Garros and earned his 10th career major championship with the 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1 victory Sunday. (AP Photo/Michel Liupchitz, Michel Spingler)
Michel Lipchitz/Michel Spingler

Clay-court tennis does not appeal to every tennis fan. It’s the red-surfaced stepchild to regal grass and prosperous hard courts, and it has a hard, grinding reputation that is often derided. Not everyone sees the beauty in its brick-red hue, but deign to call it “dirt,” as if it belonged at the bottom of a tennis caste system, encircled by chain-link fences and miles away from beautiful country clubs.

Many tennis fans would even call clay-court tennis “boring.” In their eyes, it’s a couple of defensive rabbits scampering along the baselines with the sole intention of playing moonball and waiting for the other opponent to finally make an error.


Let's Go Retro

Watch the following tennis clip of match point between Bjorn Borg and young Ivan Lendl at the 1981 French Open final. It’s only one minute and necessary for the subsequent commentary in this article. Borg and Lendl are worth it, right?

The first thing that stands out is how utterly exhausted Lendl is. He’s leaning over as if this is a fight to the death, sweat dripping down his face and neck. Then it’s back to the war.

That match point lasted 33 strokes and Borg deviated four times from trading cross-court strokes, three of those times to get Lendl to hit with his backhand. Lendl turned on one of Borg’s short balls to pull a powerful forehand from the ad court, but Borg coolly kept the rally going and finally watched Lendl sail an awkward slice to the left corner.

OK, so clay-court tennis was radically different in 1981. Borg and Lendl are leaner athletes, their rackets and strings have very little “pop” and the surface is much slower with resultant high, lazy bounces. Most modern tennis fans would undoubtedly declare this as “boring,” especially if this was not Borg vs. Lendl in the fifth and deciding set for the French Open championship.

Maybe not everyone knows about John McEnroe's meltdown versus Lendl at the 1984 French Open. He could not endure clay's hellish demands and he paid the price. Would we take this away?

There was also young Michael Chang, cramping so badly in his 1989 fourth-round match (Lendl again) that he snuck in a submarine serve. He survived his legendary run all the way to the title, including another five-set match over Stefan Edberg in the final.

How about Andre Agassi's 1999 French Open final comeback versus Andriy Medvedev? Down two sets, the American had to prove his mettle in order to be master of all surfaces.

Last year, Nadal eked out his most grueling clay-court match, proving his worthiness for at least the thousandth time in as many ways that he was the rightful champion to hold up the Musketeers Cup.

Take away grinding endurance and these matches are not the legendary memories that they have become. Clay is demanding but rewarding. It's all part of the package.


Methods or Madness?

Tennis is no longer played in 1981, nor should we wish to turn back the clock. The Oregonian tennis writer Douglas Perry even opined that the clay-court era is dead and that Rafael Nadal is not a clay-court specialist.

Yes, the clay courts have been sped up, the technology and athletes are more fearsome and clay specialists have merged their talents into the modern tennis world of blue cement. In some respects, the clay-court mentality has taken refuge in some of the slower hard courts, most famously the Plexicushion at Melbourne’s Australian Open, where Nadal and Novak Djokovic dueled for nearly six hours for the 2012 title.

Not everyone was happy about that match, deriding it as a war of attrition and fitness and less as a battle of tennis skills. The Guardian's journal-blog interrupted its entertaining blog-reporting with its own impatient unforced error in revealing what it really thought about Nadal vs. Djokovic:

That's it, I give up. I recognise that finding angles from the back of the court requires incredible skill, that the confrontation is intense, that both are great athletes, but I can't help dreaming of runs to the net, delicate volleys and drop shots. Modern tennis is monodimensional and, dare I say it, boring, even when played with such talent.

That’s one view, but it ignores the core values of what made clay special, and what clay-court tennis fans hope will remain viable in the future:

  1. Endurance should be part of the test. Most sports do require heavy, exhausting prices. The boxer with rubbery legs may collapse even after building a lead. Fatigue might cause an NBA basketball player to bounce a few bricks from the free-throw line in the closing minutes. Soccer forwards who can play an energetic, entire game are heroes.
  2. Baseline strategy is unique on clay. It’s a turf war of positioning in which each player must angle for a series of good shots to gain a few precious meters. He probes for the opponent’s weakness, trying to coerce a weak return to try and blast through the court. Very often, the ball will come back again for a virtual reset.
  3. Defense is an important skill, and the clay-courter is well-equipped to use his speed and athleticism to retrieve many kinds of shots and responses. This skill is not as valued or necessary on a speedy court with shorter points. Fewer strokes mean less demanding defense.
  4. Modern clay-court tennis also takes strength. Nadal’s thick legs and big forearms can muscle shots from defensive angles. He is so adept at sliding into these shots with his body core twisted and his legs apart, still able to launch a powerful spin. That takes incredible strength, and few players have the trunk and legs to do this for best-of-five sets, seven different times in two weeks.
  5. Movement is another unique skill. It’s one thing to point out that clay-courters must slide into their shots, so they are already to turn and retrieve; there are also countless positions that require balance, twists and turns while still hitting a lethal shot, at least a shot that will not lose the point.
  6. Patience is part of the clay-courter’s tough mentality. He must see the big picture of his match, knowing that the highs and lows will ebb and flow, but that the important thing is to keep playing with increased effort and drive. Where Borg looked to be in control in the clip above, seemingly fresh and at ease, Nadal often drives himself to greater intensity and energy in his matches.



Artistic Beauty

These clay-court tennis skills are different than those primarily employed by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Theirs are an offensive beauty of quick finishes that can stymie most baseliners from their rhythm and strategies. It’s amazing tennis.

But clay-court tennis is also artistic in its more defensive brush strokes. Though clay-courts are now battlegrounds of explosive shots, it’s still a special place for long rallies. This should not be an apology but a badge of honor.

Clay-court fans can only hope that their favorite surface will retain its tireless flavor and vertical dimension to tennis. It’s a special way to test the best players in the world every spring at Spain, Italy and France.