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By Jim Courier
Champions Series Tennis - Player Blog

May 26, 2009 The Tennis Geek’s Guide to the Red Clay at Roland Garros

So here’s what you need to know…the clay courts at Roland Garros (RG) are the best in the world, period. I’m going to get to the ‘why’ part in a second but first let me be clear that I write this without overt bias towards this location. This has nothing to do with my success in Paris from time to time as I can recall more clearly matches I have lost there as opposed to any wins. I have the clay court background to back my claim up. Unlike many of my fellow American players I grew up playing quite a lot on clay (albeit Har-Tru) in my native Florida as a youngster and first played on a red clay court when I was 14 years old in South America. I love clay in general and practice mostly on the surface these days to save the wear and tear on my body that hard courts deliver. I’m a connoisseur. It’s not JUST about RG hosting the Granddaddy of all clay court tournaments. It’s because they make them like no one else. Let me share with you the subtle, and not so subtle, reasons why the courts in Paris at RG are second to none.

The Clay

It’s smooth as silk at RG. A player glides along the top of the court easier at RG than anywhere else and a lot of that has to do with the top layer, the silkiest crushed brick around. It’s like that fine chocolate they sprinkle on your cappuccino. The don’t glob the clay on at RG. The fantastic grounds crews keep a fine layer of clay on the surface no matter what the conditions (replacing it when the wind blows, drying it out with salt when it rains, etc). When you slide at RG it makes less noise than on any other clay court in the world. There seems to be less friction with no loss of control as you slide. It’s perfect. I’ve played in other tennis clubs around the world where the RG clay has been imported as they want to be as good as RG but for some reason the clay never feels quite as fine and never sounds the same. There could be other reasons for that so let’s move along.

The Ground Underneath

You may have seen the memento they’ve given a few players like Gustavo Kuerten that is clear glass (or crystal, not sure) showing the many layers that make up the RG surface underground. There’s definitely a science in how they construct the base of these courts and I’m not privy to the details (never got that memento to study it!) but I can talk for hours about the result of it. These are the firmest, flattest clay courts anywhere. You know how on the clay courts you’ve played on there are bad bounces all over? You ever notice how when you drag your toe when serving that you can dig a little trail in the ground that eventually makes you feel like you’re serving up a hill? Well, none of that ever happens at RG. These courts are so hard that you need a shovel to make a dent in them and so flat that I'm sure they laser them every year to correct any imperfections. When the wind blows all of the top surface of clay off of the RG courts and into the stands (as it often does) it can be dangerous on your ankles to try and slide as these courts play like a hard court (unless you’re Kim Clijsters or Gael Monfils). The only time you get bad bounces in Paris is either when you or your opponent lumps enough clay into one little area through movement and the ball manages to find that spot or when the ball hits a line. And here’s the thing. Even the lines in Paris are better. They paint them on, rather than nailing them down. I don’t know the science of this aspect either but I do know that when a ball hits the slick, nailed down lines you’re used to playing on, the ball moves much faster than the clay beside it and in Paris there is still a difference between clay and line but it’s much less. Here’s some more minutia for you…I asked the tournament referee in NYC last year how much faster the lines at the US Open are compared to the non-lined deco surface they rest beside. He told me that the paint is about 15% faster than the hard surface it sits on, which is why a player often knows when they’ve hit the line based on how late their opponent is in hitting the ball in question. Details, details, details. (and the obvious question, can they get that 15% in NY closer to zero…the answer is, they’re trying)

The Grounds Crew

These men and women are All-Stars. Each court at RG has a dedicated team, just as they do at Wimbledon, to ensure playability. That means grooming the courts not only before and after matches but also sweeping the courts and lines during matches between sets to make sure there are fewer lumps of clay to create those dreaded bad bounces. Oh yeah, they also gently water them during matches too, if the conditions warrant it. And they do that by hand, not by underground sprinklers that are automatically controlled by computer, which demands feel like Novak’s drop shot to ensure that the courts are evenly watered. By the way, they have two minutes to both sweep, line and water the court before the players get back out there to start the next set. Try that at your club with a group of friends and a timer…good luck. There can be windswept days when these teams are out with buckets of clay, trying to replace (again, evenly) the clay that is now being carried on the clothes of the patron’s in the stands. There are also the rainy days when you will see them quickly cover the courts with a tarp (I’d love to see which team is faster, Wimbledon or RG. To be fair we’d need to have them compete “home and away”). On the really wet days they will spread rock salt on the courts after they remove the tarps to dry the courts out and that is the only time that a player ever feels any friction of note when sliding on these beautiful courts.


As you can see there are a few different factors as to why these are the best courts around. There are probably many more factors I am unaware of that create this perfect playground for clay court tennis but these are the ones most apparent to me and easiest to translate into words. Come to think of it, since I haven’t played on the clay at RG since ‘99, I’m a little bummed out that no one else has figured out how to replicate them. I’ll be out in the next few days playing on the terrific clay courts in NYC that I enjoy regularly but I’ll be acutely aware that they’re not as smooth, quiet, flat or firm as the ones I’m watching on TV in the early morning hours.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 27th, 2009 03:08 am (UTC)
Awesome article! I love clay but have never had the chance to play on it so this was cool to read.
May. 27th, 2009 12:14 pm (UTC)
I played on it once (the green stuff) but it didn't seem much different to me than a hard court, because I didn't know any better! And I didn't try to slide, more to my shame.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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