Clay-Court Tennis, the ‘Greatest Show on Dirt’

Rafael Nadal sliding in the clay during the 2018 French Open.CreditChristophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Rafael Nadal sliding in the clay during the 2018 French Open.CreditChristophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The French Open is the quintessential clay court tournament: It’s the greatest show on dirt.

Every year at this time, I fall in love again and again with Roland Garros’s beautiful, burnt sienna courts ringed with emerald green backdrops. Though it’s not really clay. We call it clay because of its origins. In late 19th-century France, ceramics were crushed into powder and spread over the grass courts of a Cannes hotel to protect them from wear and to bring down maintenance costs. (Grass courts are costly to maintain — especially with people trampling all over them day after day.)

The surface proved to be a great hit among both the visitors of the Côte d’Azur and the hotel owners. Further, the emergence of tennis coincided with the birth of the modern spectator, and the unique clay-court color palette became a draw not just for players but for people who simply wanted to sit courtside and watch a match.

And so, what up until then was an essentially English game played on defunct croquet courts and known as “lawn tennis” swiftly became a global game played on a variety of surfaces and soon was to be known as simply tennis.

A tennis court is like a good play: The lines may stay the same, but the context changes depending on the real world it inhabits. The context of a tennis court is invariably its surface. The game has been played on grass, red clay, green clay, blue clay, a myriad of asphalt and concrete hard courts, wood and even carpet.

You’ll find by playing on different courts that the surface changes everything: what the ball does, how fast it moves, what your body does, how fast it moves — even the ideas that enter your head during a point change (or at least should change) depending on what’s under your feet.

I play almost exclusively on red clay. During the cold months, I play indoors near the East River. And during the warm months, I play outdoors just off the Hudson River. Red clay might be associated with Western Europe and South America, but New York is no slouch in that department. There’s something curative about the surface: I’m now in my 40s, sporting a surgically repaired Achilles’ tendon, and the way red clay gives under me feels less taxing at the end of a couple of hours of court time.

Conversely, points play out longer, it’s harder to hit winners, and so the mental exertion eventually catches up to my body. You have to think on clay. Or maybe it’s that as the rallies stretch on, you’re tempted to think when you shouldn’t think at all. But as I watch Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep and Dominic Thiem and Sloane Stephens this weekend, I’m glad that they’ve figured out the thinking part.

Clay begs your body to come to a different understanding of the game. Shots that would have whizzed past you on grass hang in the air invitingly for you on clay — that is, if you know how to slide to get there in time and what types of shots you can and cannot make in those situations.

As we’ve seen from Serena Williams and Roger Federer, being able to stand on the baseline and hit shots early and flat is a great advantage for a player who wants to unleash aggressive, first-strike tennis. But on clay courts, the ball bounces so remorselessly high that if you don’t play farther back on the court, away from the baseline, you’ll be left to trying to pull off shots coming at you shoulder high and often even higher.

The French Open luxuriates in its own laws of physics and playlists of tactics that make it more distinctive than even Wimbledon. Tennis on grass, after all, is really in essence a bucolic, ultrafast version of hard court tennis infused with a heavy dose of nostalgia.

Strangely, this is one of the allures of tennis. That as it glances both backward and forward, the game can revel in the nostalgia of grass and mandatory all-white outfits while heralding in video replay and extensive changes such as tiebreakers and shot clocks.

This is no doubt in part because of the nature of the schedule. Professional tennis is one of the few sports that begin on the first day of the year and progress forward to the end of the year. Within this calendar year the three main surfaces — hard court, clay and grass — each form their own type of mini-season within the full season, beginning on hard courts, moving to clay, then grass and finally back to hardcourts. In other words, a year in tennis mimics a year in our lives: It’s seasonal, and a season is inherently a thing both of renewal and destruction, welcomes and farewells.

So spare a moment for my favorite surface this weekend and catch the French Open finals. Come Monday tennis turns the page, from the greatest show on dirt to leaves of grass.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the writer of the forthcoming The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey.

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