I play on indoor hard courts in the fall and winter, and outdoor Har-Tru clay courts during the spring and summer months. I’ve been using the same pair of all-court shoes for both surfaces, but someone recently told me I’d be better off using clay-court specific shoes this time of year. What makes a shoe more suited to clay versus hard courts?—Jake E.
The major difference between hard and clay-court shoes is primarily their outsoles. And more specifically, the tread on the outsole. The upper on the clay version of a particular model may be less porous—to prevent the tiny particles from getting inside the shoe—than the all or hard-court model. There may also be very subtle differences in materials used to provide extra padding, support and durability for the shoe intended to be used on hard courts. But if a shoe is offered in both hard and clay court varieties, the outsole generally draws the distinction.
A clay outsole will typically have a tight, herringbone pattern (above). This promotes better traction and smoother sliding on the loose surface. Hard court outsoles usually have less and thicker tread to resist wear, as well as allow for swifter changes of directions. Shoes that purport to be all-court shoes (right) will often have a modified outsole that has a tighter tread on the lateral/outer side to help with sliding on clay, with less tread and thicker rubber on the medial/inner side and high abrasion areas to promote greater durability.
Can you play effectively with a hard-court shoe on a clay court?
Absolutely. Especially if it’s well-kept with a good amount of clay and moisture. But where clay-court shoes become handy is when the court is overly dry, or lacks enough clay. Those courts tend to be trickier to navigate—even slippery—and the extra tread can prove an asset for surer footing.
On the other hand, it doesn’t make much sense to use a clay-court shoe on a hard court. If it’s a gritty hard court, the extra tread could actually cause some sticking issues when changing directions. Plus, the outsole will degrade quicker and it’s unusual to find a clay-court shoe with a warranty.
So, if you can swing the expense, having shoes for both hard and clay courts is a worthwhile luxury.