Playing Ball: Getting in the Flow

Sunday, June 02, 2013 /by

When it comes to surfaces, I’m a player in exile. I grew up on the often-cracked hard courts of Central Pennsylvania, where the ball tends to get to you in a hurry, and sliding more than a few centimeters will earn you a quick ticket to the emergency room. Those are the courts where I developed my game. I worked hard on my return-of-serve reflexes, tried to take the ball on the rise with my two-handed backhand whenever I could, and made the most of my lefty slice into the ad court. Anything to keep from getting pushed off the court. It was the meat-and-potatoes, serve-and-forehand American game, straight from the heartland.

For the last decade, though, I’ve played my tennis on that most un-patriotic of surfaces: clay. In truth, it’s the green version, also known as Har-Tru, which is native to the South here. Oddly, green clay is also the surface of choice in the city where I live, New York. Many older private clubs in the Northeast replaced or supplemented their grass courts with clay, and in New York City the fashion even extends to the public sector. Here the urban unwashed get to slide across dusty public facilities in Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Over in Riverside Park, a dozen European style red-clay courts are situated a few feet from the Hudson River. New York is known for the hard asphalt of Flushing Meadows; but it is, in many places, a dirt-baller’s paradise.

Ten years ago I joined a small club in Brooklyn whose five clay courts were first laid down in 1889. The more I've played on them, the dirtier my style has become: I put more topspin on the ball, and I expect it come back a lot more often. My game has also become more forehand-dominated, because I have time to run around and hit it. That’s one of the counterintuitive things about clay; rallies are longer, but you need to hit heavier, more penetrating shots to control them. 

Playing on dirt is a good workout, and a good lesson in how to construct points. But it still doesn’t seem to be the ideal surface for me. Last summer I went to a tennis camp in upstate New York with a few regular partners of mine. It rained that weekend, so we moved to the camp’s quick indoor courts. I was, to my surprise, back in my element; the fast surface and the controlled conditions gave me a jolt of confidence. I was suddenly hitting the ball harder than I had in years. By the end of the weekend, one of my friends put up his hands and said, “We need to get you back on the clay, man.”

This morning I was back on the clay at my Brooklyn club, playing another regular in my rotation. Our match came, of course, in the middle of an intensive two weeks of tracking the pros at Roland Garros. Taking my racquet out today, the first question that came to mind was: Is this little rectangle in front of me really the same size as the center court in Paris? That one looks like a football field by comparison—or a tennis court fit for the Gods. This one in Brooklyn was definitely made for mortals.

So did all of that watching help? For the first 45 minutes or so, I would say yes. I made my first serves, and occasionally hit my targets with them. I slid into my slice backhand without rolling my ankle—I can glide for a couple of feet, but can’t create the extended skid marks that the pros do. I also found the range on my drop shot. Watching the best players seems to improve that stroke the most; they remind me that the first rule of the dropper is to get the ball over the net. I managed that today.

I went up 3-0 in the first set. It felt good to get off the couch and away from the laptop, felt good to run, felt good to sweat in New York humidity again. The wind chimes in the apartment window next to my court even reminded me of the opening bells in a favorite song of mine, the Velvet Underground’s great early-day lullaby, “Sunday Morning.” What wasn’t there to love about clay-court tennis?

There was one thing, it turned out: My opponent loves it more than I do. He’s played on NYC dirt for decades. He knows that if you can track down an extra ball, throw up an extra lob, hit a demoralizing passing shot on the run, and never give a point away, you can eventually claw your way into a match, or drive your opponent over the edge, whichever comes first. His game is based on making you win a rally more than once. That’s tough to pull off on hard courts, but tailor-made for clay.

As often happens against him, the pressure of having to hit two winners to finish off one point took its toll. I sprayed a few shots, took a couple mental vacations, cursed the sun that blinded me on my serve, and grumbled as he threw up defensive lobs that touched down within inches of the baseline. When I gave back a break of serve in the second set, I started to think those chimes in the window were actually pretty irritating.

I also began to get tired, which made me think about the pros again. The physical aspect of the professional game on clay is, for lack of a better word, amazing. Hours of long rallies, heavy ground strokes, looping topspin swings, sprints from one corner to the other, retrievals from their shoetops—and after all that, they can still reach up and rain down a 125-m.p.h. ace late in the fifth set. This morning, while giving up on a gettable ball after less than two sets, I had a renewed appreciation for what it takes to win on clay at the pro level. 

Still, I don't mind playing in exile. I’ve never had knee problems—knock on dirt—and while clay has a reputation for monotony, it actually gives you more strategic options, more ways to win points. And whether you’re a player or a spectator, sliding gives the game more flow than it has anywhere else. 

On Sunday, I came off the little court at my club and—what else?—watched the French Open on that court fit for the Gods in Paris. Roger Federer and Gilles Simon, who flowed to the far ends of Chatrier for five sets, confirmed again that I have no idea how the pros do what they do on clay. It's the most physical form of tennis, yet at the same time the most artistic. They do it on their court, but I'm happy for the chance to try it on mine.

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