Court surfaces, why are they so important?
Nadal conquered clay, Federer became the King of grass and Djokovic has dominated hard courts. Each player thrives at different tournaments and the common factor tends to be the differing surfaces. So why is it that the surfaces can play such a big factor on specific players dominating the tournaments. Even at club level, different clubs will have different surfaces that require players to adapt their games in order to succeed. I myself have over the years played matches on traditional English Hard courts, Grass Courts, Astroturf, Artificial Clay and even the odd game on indoor Hard courts. Each surface behaves and reacts differently in terms of speed, bounce and its ability to allow players to move around the court.
For this article I will focus on the main surfaces that are used in Grand Slam matches as well as Astroturf, due to its prominence in New Zealand. An obvious difference of these surfaces would be speed. By simply watching matches on these surfaces you get a good understanding of the speed the surface possesses. The Australian Open hard courts are considered the fastest courts on the grand slam circuit, closely followed by Wimbledon’s grass courts and the US open’s hard courts and finally the French Open clay courts. Evidence over why this is such a big factor in playing styles is shown by the point length of each surface, with clays far longer that Australian Open hard court. Another piece of evidence for this would be the ace count on each surface, with only 5.5% of serves being an ace on clay courts, highlighting its lack of speed. What this means is that players with bigger groundstrokes and a bigger serve are more likely to succeed on hard courts. The players receiving these big shots will have less time to move and play a strong defensive shot back, also showing that defending on quicker surfaces requires strength and good movement. This offers reasoning as to why Djokovic is very successful on Hard courts. He is up their with the best movers in the game and possibly possesses the best fitness levels of any player currently on the circuit, meaning he can cope with the big hits and also use his own serve and groundstrokes in order to overpower his opposing player. Players like Andy Murray struggled on this surface in his early career as his serve and groundstrokes were not powerful enough to overpower players and he wasn’t physically strong enough to cope with the bigger shots himself.
The Clay courts lack of speed nullifies these big shots, as the ball tends to sit up after bouncing rather than skip through. Clay court points last far longer than points on either hard court or grass; hence why players like Federer have struggled with Clay courts in the latter part of his career. Federer has adapted his game with age, by looking to finish points after the first 3 or 4 shots rather than previously looking to out play his opponents. Clay does not allow for shorter points and so physically Federer is now more likely to struggle with the longer points that clay courts produce over the course of a 2-week grand slam. Nadal’s success on clay courts comes with his physicality on the courts and particularly the spin he generates with his shots. Nadal’s groundstrokes cause the ball to have far more revs on the ball than other top 10 players, this causes the ball to kick off the surface more and bounce higher than the average shot. On a clay court, where the ball tends to bounce up more than skid on further enhances this affect, meaning that players have to play the ball higher up their body and away from their optimal strike zone, meaning that players struggle to get the upper hands in the rallies. However this benefit on clay can be a downfall on grass courts and surfaces where the ball skids through more.
Grass is a quick surface because the ball skids off the surface but also fails to bounce as high as other surfaces, meaning players who stay lower to the ground and have a stronger all round game will be more successful. Nadal has struggled on this surface in latter years because his groundstrokes are not as quick as other players and the bounce is not as prominent. Players have also adapted to hit the ball earlier up the court and therefore don’t allow the ball to get above their optimal hitting zone. Federer’s success on grass comes from his strong all round game, a strong serve and flatter forehand. He is also very successful at the net meaning that all over the court he provides a strong defence and offence against the opponent as well as having strong footwork around the court.
These courts also provide different physical challenges, showing why a player’s fitness and build can affect their success on a surface. Courts like grass and Astroturf are soft on the knees and ankles on impact, meaning that less damage is likely to occur from the movement around the court. However moving on these surfaces is harder work, grass tends to be slippery and clay tends to allow players to slide towards the ball in that iconic fashion rather than more traditional court movements. Hard courts on the other hand are far less forgiving on the body, especially the knee and ankle ligaments. Players who are more prominent on these surfaces will often struggle with injuries in these areas of their body, which makes the physique of Djokovic, who is leaner than Nadal more beneficial on harder surfaces. More matches are abandoned due to injury on hard courts than on any other service, highlighting its challenges.
Success on an Astroturf court
Astro courts behave in a similar fashion to grass courts. They are on the quicker spectrum of courts and the ball tends to stay lower than on traditional hard courts. A successful player must therefore stay lower to the ground during shots in order to hit the ball in an optimal striking position. Defending on these courts can also be tricky due to the lack of bounce and high speed the ball skids through at. Players therefore must be very efficient movers around the court and have good core strength in order to return the quicker ball, so your footwork drills in training are very important!!
In terms of shots required this surface requires a good all round game. A strong serve is vital on this quicker surface to give you the upper hand in the rally. A flatter groundstroke with less topspin is ideal to aid the ball in skidding off the surface and gives your opponent less time to return the ball, however some topspin is required to maintain consistency. Good slice shots can also be a great weapon to have on this surface. They cause the ball to keep even lower, meaning your opponent must also be efficient at staying low and also less likely to hit stronger returns that put you under pressure. So next time your out on court have a think about what characteristics the surface possesses and what you could do in order to benefit your game and make life harder for your opponents. Good luck and have fun.