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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Coaches Q and A: How Does European Clay Differ From U.S. Clay, and What Has Changed Wimbledon's Grass?

With the tennis world making the transition from clay to grass, it's an appropriate time to discuss the differences and evolution of the two surfaces. Former French Open finalist Harold Solomon, of the Harold Solomon Tennis Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida is the ideal source for an exploration of the differences between U.S. green clay and European red. He also explains how the lawns at Wimbledon have changed over the years.

Today's question: How does European clay differ from U.S. clay, and what has changed Wimbledon's grass?

The primary difference between European red clay and our green HAR-TRU® courts is that generally speaking, the clay here is faster and is much more uniform in its bounce. European clay varies from country to country. European clay courts are not rolled, and after the winter season the courts get harder as more and more tennis is played on them, but rarely achieve the firmness of the clay in the U.S. Consequently, the courts tend to have worse bounces and play slower.

You will notice in some tournaments such as the French, the court speed varies greatly depending on the weather. In Paris, when it gets hot and dry the courts can play very fast; however when the weather becomes cold and rainy, it becomes very difficult to finish off a point.

In Rome, in order to make the matches more interesting the tournament organizers have scraped most of the top surface off the clay and allowed the base to harden and in doing so have produced courts with the speed of some hard courts. Most of the European clay courts are built with a very porous base so that they can drain with all of the rainy weather they can get. This base usually has a very heavy coating of clay material on top which helps to slow the ball down.

On American clay, players can be more aggressive and can finish off points far easier than on European red clay, which accounts for why some of the American players have more success here than on the red dirt! More patience, more margins, the ability to slide effectively, and superior conditioning are necessities for successful European red clay court tennis.

The grass at Wimbledon has changed drastically over the years. It was not too long ago that unless you played on the center court or court one you couldn't stay back on the grass. Especially during the first week, the courts were very green, slippery and fast, with an extremely low bounce. The new grass introduced in recent years is thicker, which tends to slow the ball down and allows for a much higher bounce.

All of the courts now are in excellent condition because of the new strain of grass but also because the courts are now maintained at a superior level. They are constantly covered when not in use and are almost completely dry when play begins no matter how much it has rained that day. They are also much firmer than in past years which allows for consistent and higher bounces.

In years past, a good slice would skid and stay so low that passing shots were hard to come by; today the ball bounces very similar to a hard court. Wimbledon has also gone to a heavier ball which has aided in tempering the speed of the courts. It is now rare to see players venturing into the net on a regular basis because the player hitting the passing shot can pretty well count on a consistent bounce and having the time to set up and make his shot.
Do you have a question for Andy or Harold? If so, please send it to clewis[at]zootennis[dot]com with the phrase Coaches Q and A in the subject line.