Playing on this surface requires that players know how to slide glide along it and master the ‘topspin’
The Roland Garros Tournament is the only Grand Slam that is played on clay and that is one of the characteristics that defines the game of the participants.
Clay is typical in countries of southern Europe and Latin America, where the climate is warmer and less rainy.
These weather conditions favor a dry surface, unlike places like the United Kingdom, for example, where humidity and rainfall allow for the lawn on the Wimbledon courts to be maintained more easily.
The courts at Roland Garros are prepared with a mixture of five layers of materials. The most superficial one is the layer of clay or brick dust, which gives that reddish color typical at Roland Garros.
This layer is only 2 millimeters thick, but a ton of brick dust is used to cover each court in the tournament. In the case of Phillippe Chatrier’s, the main court, 1.5 tons are used.
Below is a layer of pulverized limestone that is compacted to prevent leaks. The next three layers are made of volcanic stone, gravel and stones to drain.
Placed one on top of the other, the five layers add up to a thickness of 80 centimeters.
— Alejandro Gonzalez (@AleGonzalezpro) May 13, 2016
Clay may not need as much care as grass, but it does require active maintenance: it needs sweeping to keep the surface even and lines visible and water first thing in the morning and at night to preserve its properties.
Dancing on Clay
Each surface has its qualities and favors a different type of game. Grass makes fast play easier, just like the hard court, while clay is very physically and strategically demanding.
In order to master the clay it is essential to know how to glide along it: the brick dust allows athletes to run from one side of the court to the other to later stop their sprint gliding on the red earth.
You have to calculate very well when is the best time to start stopping and the seconds it takes to do so, to know if one will get to the ball or not.
Therefore, besides speed, tennis on clay requires great physical strength and a great deal of control over one’s body to know how far we can go.
At the same time, this surface is more comfortable for players, since brick dust acts as cushion and reduces the risk of injury.
The magic effect of Clay
Besides cushioning players’ moves on the track, clay also slows down the speed of the balls.
This means that the game is slower: players have more time to react to their opponent’s shot and, as a result, points tend to be longer.
In tennis on clay, the game is less direct and strategy plays an important part in the game. A ball thrown into a specific spot on the court can cause our opponent to move there and allow us to win the point two shots later.
Also, what’s very important are the shots with an effect, like a drop shot (when the ball is dropped as close as possible to the other side of the net) or a ‘slice’ (a cut shot where the ball stays low and is thrown front in without much height).
And, of course, the “topspin” Rafa Nadal’s special: a shot with effect that makes the ball touch the ground while turning on itself, causing an almost unpredictable bounce. That’s the magic in clay.