Tennis Turns Terracotta: Character, Consistency and Tennis

antiMatterSenior Analyst IApril 11, 2010

PARIS - JUNE 07:  Roger Federer of Switzerland kisses the trophy as he celebrates victory during the Men's Singles Final match against Robin Soderling of Sweden on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 7, 2009 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Marianne brings home the atmosphere and makes the coming season nostalgic even before it arrives. Read her clay-court wizardry here.

Every concentrated activity that humans indulge in, sort of fits one set of talents more than others.

Physics fits well for somebody with a keen sense to spot generalizations; mathematics, though closely related, finds company with people who have reasoning abilities and logic; politics goes after those who can create a coherent public opinion, in other words, influence.

Of course, a sport chooses those who are athletic.

"Athletics" by itself, in that sense could be the purest among sports, since each of the events that constitute it concentrates on a single aspect of the human physique in the purest form of way--probably what we call "natural talent." Usain Bolt is a more naturally talented athlete than Roger Federer, in the purest sense of the word.

When it comes to games in sports with compound rules like tennis, it is not just one skill that decides the winner.

One can of course say that an athlete good at sprints "can run fast" and convey the whole information about his abilities, while you cannot say something similar about a tennis player.

You cannot even list down with absolute certainty what all he is good at (of course athletes who play games are not as good in any particular athletic department as an athlete who competes in athletics).

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The scoring and rules of tennis take a weighted average of the different skills and proclaim a winner.

The constancy of the rules and scoring system do not mean that the weighing is done in a fixed way. Though we cannot say what the weighing constants are, we definitely get a sense that in different matches different factors play the key-role. While Andy Roddick's aggressive penetrating forehands did Rafael Nadal in, his ability to take off pace helped him against Tomas Berdych.

To put it simply, you cannot objectively compare two tennis matches.

This in addition to adding a new dimension to a sport like tennis has also unfortunately led to a lot of meaningless debates which try to wear the colours of objectivity (objectivity actually is colourless).

The more the number of dimensions the more enriching the sport becomes. And tennis has one more-different surfaces, each surface suiting better, a different subset of tennis talent compared to the others.

Let's talk dirt.

Assume that you have been given a set of numbers, all between 0 and 10. Most numbers are between 3 and 5. But one number, the last one is a 9. If this were the relative pace on the shot in a rally in a match held on a fast court, it would of course make sense that the last number or one very close to the last would be the highest in magnitude.

Fast courts differentiate more, the quality of single strokes and let them stand out in a rally and most probably win you the point.

The matter is a bit different when it comes to clay-court tennis, the 9 could be somewhere in the middle of the rally. Well there could be many 9s, and it could also happen that the last three to four numbers you see are solid, but not devastating, 6s.

Clay court tennis integrates more, adding the effect of each stroke one after the other averages it, and imposes the resulting average on the players alternately. This average can remain constant for a long time, like in long rallies.

But one player or the other starts packing more and more "punch" into the rally increasing the magnitude of the average faced by his opponent, extracting weaker replies which reduce the average he himself has to deal with. Once the average crosses his threshold the opponent buckles under the pressure and loses the point.

All this just means that playing on clay, what matters more is to construct your points rather than destroy your opponent in every rally. Taking the time away from your opponent is not so easy as regards the amount of work put in, unlike on a fast court.

The surface not only makes movement different, forcing you to slide to a stop, but also gives ample bounce on the ball and slows it down, putting more shots within tolerable reaches of a player, allowing him to hit it back more often than not.

In no other arena would you see the corners of a tennis court probed so incisively by the tennis ball, in an attempt by the players to push each other out of the tramlines and put them so impossibly out of position that almost anything they hit into the open court might be a winner, or would not give the opponent enough time on reaching there to react and execute correctly.

Indeed some of these protracted rallies come across as "boring" to the general public. But one must not forget that what is construed as boredom here is among the most difficult struggles in tennis, where two opponents are locked in an equal battle, both coping with the fact that despite their best efforts they are only able to just survive.

Truly, a test of character and consistency.

The phrase, "Spin and Slide" could very well differentiate clay court tennis.

Spin is normally a defensive element on any stroke allowing you to swing more freely finding more depth, safely. The best forehand in tennis today, Roger Federer's, has spin as one of its big components.

But on clay spin has been taken a level up to being offensive by Nadal. He spends a major proportion of the work on the ball on generating spin. Though it doesn't win points outright it percolates through the racquet head and hands of opponents breaking them down.

In a similar sense, when it is said that defensive tennis rules roost on clay courts, it must be taken to mean that clay allows what is normally regarded as defensive tennis to be executed offensively.

The movement of the legs and feet must be aimed in such a way that the upper body finds itself in a comfortable position to execute a swing and connect with the racket's sweet spot. Movement is only the means to the end, but a very important means, the only one.

Players who have won on multiple surfaces have made these two aspects of their technique independent. The movement allows them to reach the ball, once there, the upper body executes. They are oblivious of each other.

When you cannot move properly it could mean that you can't find your balance on the court while running, or that you can reach the ball in time, but are not able to find balance in your stroke.

The fomer is applicable only to new-borns.

The latter is something similar to being unable to play both the left and right hands on a piano independently. The way the lower body moves is affecting the way the upper body reacts to the ball.

Many people find the transition from synthetic courts to clay courts difficult. And it is not because they are too slippery on clay. Clay doesn't allow the traction that you get on hard courts to plant yourself, even on the run, and be pretty sure of your footing. The ability to slide and hit balls well is probably one of the best balancing acts in the game.

In closing, stroke-technique may not be rewarded as much as on faster courts on a clay court, because bad technique is normally bad because you do not have enough time to go through the motions, and you are given that in plenty on clay. (Nadal's technique is not good on all courts, and is hence inferior to Federer's, whose technique is good on any court.)

At the same time, it rewards creativity and a keen sense of court geometry (which is why Andy Murray can become a force on clay in a couple of years).

It rewards consistency and character.

Here's to a compelling clay court season!

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