Clay helps our bodies and games, but it's still a foreign surface here

Clay helps our bodies and games, but it's still a foreign surface here

The hard-court game we play in the U.S. is now virtually indistinguishable from the one played on red clay in Europe.

From the French perspective, clay-court tennis is like their native language: a thing of beauty forever under siege. Just as France has fought to save its mellifluous mother tongue from extinction at the hands of English, the country’s most famous club, Roland Garros, is making sure that its native style of play—known as dirtball in the U.S.—has a role in the sport’s push into Asia. The club is expanding its footprint in Paris, and trying to do the same with la terre battue globally.

Roland Garros wants to promote clay-court tennis in the United States, too, but second languages are a tough sell to Americans.

The hard-court game we play in the U.S. is now virtually indistinguishable from the one played on red clay in Europe. Both are about ground strokes, topspin and endurance. With this in mind, officials in the States have tried to get top juniors on clay more often. For its National Campus in Florida, the USTA imported 450 tons of European crushed brick. The hope is that young players will learn the patience and point-construction skills that the modern game demands.

“Clay encourages rhythmic movement, and good movement leads to good strokes,” says Tim Mayotte, who runs the tennis program at The Thoreau Club near Boston.

There have been bright spots: Serena Williams has won three French Opens, and Sloane Stephens came close to winning her first last year. But the last American to reach the men’s final in Paris was Andre Agassi in 1999.

“No one gets better just by training on clay; it has to be taught,” Mayotte says. “Americans seem to play hard-court tennis on clay.”

Still, you don’t have to know how to slide, or torque a topspin forehand like Rafael Nadal, to enjoy the advantages of clay. The surface, which is more forgiving than asphalt, comes with physical benefits for recreational players that increase with age. Recognizing a lack of clay, some larger facilities in the southern U.S. have recently made substantial investments in the surface. But the relative number of clay courts across the country remains stuck at 15 percent. According to Pat Hanssen, president of the Har-Tru company, the maintenance required—daily watering and sweeping, and yearly reconditioning—remains an obstacle.

“The surface is great to learn on, and studies have shown you’re less likely to be injured on it,” Hanssen says. “But clay is a commitment. Europeans are used to that, but most people here are trained to play and leave.” 

Tony MacKay, owner of Court Care Systems, adds that few schools or municipalities can justify paying for that maintenance when they can build hard courts instead.

“If the government decided we should be playing on clay, they could set up a fund, but that doesn’t seem likely,” MacKay says. “Until then, it’s going to mostly be a country-club surface here.”

Roland Garros is right to insist on clay’s place in the game, and not just because it’s good for their brand. Clay brings a heightened fluidity to tennis, and unites the game’s art with its physicality like no other surface. For now, most of us in the U.S. can only savor the chance to see it from Europe each spring, and keep trying to find a way to learn to speak it ourselves.