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It’s time to retire the words “clay court specialist”
Modern tennis is largely shaped by the skill set it takes to currently succeed at Roland Garros: sharp-shooting accuracy, racquet head speed and aggression. If you can make it in Paris, you can make it anywhere.
Published May 25, 2022
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The time has come to retire the term “clay court specialist.” Certainly, there are some players who perform better on clay than on other surfaces. But to use the word “specialist” implies something narrow, subordinate to a skill set far more capable of true greatness. Bluntly speaking, the so-called “clay court specialist” is limited.
No longer is this the case. Once upon a time, it was easy to regard the way men played tennis at Roland Garros and treat that style as arguably peripheral to tennis’ main events. For what was clay-court success other than the ability to win matches simply by mastering the art of attrition? As Peter Bodo wrote in the book Inside Tennis, a splendid account of the 1978 tennis year, “Tennis at the French is trench warfare; lobs are lifted like deadly mortars, except they almost always come back.”
Omnipresent as defense was in Paris, what value did retrieval and net clearance have at Wimbledon and the US Open—the majors that theoretically demanded a far wider array of skills?
But the truth is that tennis in the 2020s—and that includes Wimbledon and the other two majors—is largely shaped by the skill set it takes to currently succeed at Roland Garros. Not just lofty topspin, but sharp-shooting accuracy. Not just consistency, but racquet-head speed. Not just the flat serve, but also the kick and the slice serve. Not just the retriever, but also the aggressor.
These are the qualities that have won Roland Garros now for many years and continue to define it today. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. If anything, those who thrive on other surfaces need to broaden their offensive arsenals if they wish to excel on the clay.
For many years, one of Roland Garros’ most compelling courts was the one nicknamed “The Bullring,” beloved by spectators and players for its round shape and exceptional intimacy. These days, the clay tennis court itself has taken on circle-like qualities, players scampering into territory well outside baseline to track down hard, heavily spun drives and in turn fling back their own. Call contemporary clay-court tennis a mix that transcends defense and offense—supported by fitness, propelled by movement, both wings more balanced and lethal than ever.
The deceptive ancestor—note that word, deceptive—of today’s clay game is Bjorn Borg. Prior to Borg, to win on clay was to compromise one’s primary playing style, a concession to the surface’s unique demands. Back in those days, clay-court prowess was an app, temporarily downloaded. Given that the three other majors were all played on grass until the end of 1974, clay’s niche-like qualities made sense.
“The grandeur is public,” wrote Rex Bellamy in his 1969 account of Roland Garros, “the protracted, absorbing exercise in tactics, technique and physical and mental stamina. The pathos is private—the drained, exhausted bodies crumpled on the masseur’s table or the dressing-room benches.” So it went in the days when athletes were discouraged from drinking water and rarely able to hit groundstroke winners. Tales abound of ardent aggressors who learned to temper their creative impulses by practicing the art of patience, deploying their wooden racquets to grind their way through rallies and coax errors.
Borg arrived with those qualities already baked into his operating system. A remarkably low pulse, a two-handed backhand, an aptitude for hitting topspin higher than ever and two of the fastest legs in tennis history made Borg a new kind of clay-court natural. The first game of the 1978 final between Borg and Guillermo Vilas featured two rallies north of 35 shots. Later came one 86 shots long.
To be sure, the attrition model created by Borg carried forward. Consider some of the players who won Roland Garros after Borg emerged and how they played. Vilas, Mats Wilander, Michael Chang, Sergei Bruguera, Thomas Muster, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero—each rock-solid, far more content to extract a mistake than attempt a winner. So be it. This was the most visible asset Borg had brought to the clay.
But it wasn’t the long-term success strategy. For Borg had posed a question: How do you disrupt the baseliner who doesn’t miss?
Concurrently, by Borg’s prime, tennis’ popularity had grown to the point that racquet companies were looking to make the game easier for the incoming masses seeking to play the sport. While this indeed allowed millions of aspiring recreational players to wield both oversized and graphite frames, it also aided various pros. Pros Gene Mayer and Ivan Lendl have cited the ways new frames added power and precision to their already formidable strokes. Added to this were revolutionary approaches to fitness and nutrition, first undertaken by Martina Navratilova, subsequently adapted by Lendl.
In 1981, armed with a graphite racquet and forceful groundstrokes, Lendl extended Borg to five sets in the finals of Roland Garros. Three years later, Lendl won his first of three Roland Garros titles, each earned with his blend of consistency and firepower, most notably in the form of a lethal forehand. Wilander, defender supreme when he won the title in ’82, added incrementally more aggression during his ’85 and ’88 championship runs. Andres Gomez’s victory over Agassi in the ’90 final was another example of offensive clay-court tennis, as were the triumphs of Jim Courier in ’91 and ’92, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in ’96, Carlos Moya in ’98 and Agassi in ’99.
A particularly notable Roland Garros moment came in 1997 with the arrival of Gustavo Kuerten, a free-spirited talent, armed with a string that revolutionized tennis. It was called Luxilon. Previously, strings had been lively, intended to propel the ball from a dead piece of lumber. But Luxilon, a polyester, was dead, in large part acting as a governor for dynamic graphite frames.
Pros could now hit the tar out of the ball and generate both massive power and heavy spin. It was not easy to volley a passing shot hit by a Luxilon-shaped ball. Nor was it easy to volley with Luxilon in your frame. In more recent years, players have favored a hybrid mix of Luxilon and gut.
Though other players had begun to use Luxilon around the same time as Kuerten, he more than anyone initially showcased how successful it could be to generate speed and accuracy for such shots as his missile-like down-the-line one-handed backhand, used to great effect during the Brazilian’s three title runs in ’97, ’00 and ’01. For a Kuerten descendant, consider Stan Wawrinka, upset winner over Novak Djokovic in the 2015 Roland Garros final. That Wawrinka’s win that year was bracketed by title runs at the Australian Open in 2014 and the US Open in 2016 proves conclusively that he’s in no way a clay court specialist.
There had been a time when the thinking was that the net-rusher represented tennis’ tactical pinnacle, a desired and seemingly permanent improvement on life parked at the baseline. “Professional tennis today is a serve and volley game,” wrote that style’s first great practitioner, Jack Kramer. “If you don’t come in on your second serve, your opponent will come in and will force you into the errors.” But effective as that tactic was from the late ‘40s through the early ‘70s, the arrival of such two-handed returners as Borg and Jimmy Connors turned the tables on net-rushers.
Perhaps no shot has more revolutionized tennis than the two-handed backhand. While some of the very best volleyers in the sport’s history—John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter—generated excellent results, every decade since the ‘70s has been marked by increasingly fewer frequent serve-and-volleyers. View tennis history this way, and the serve-volley era is simply a middle stage in the sport’s evolution.
All through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Roland Garros champions like Lendl, Gomez, Courier, Kafelnikov, Moya and Agassi were returning tennis to the way it had been played in the ‘30s, when such greats as Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Gottfried von Cramm and Don Budge all won primarily with forceful groundstrokes (though each was also a highly competent volleyer).
And now, over these last 17 years, we have seen 13 Nadal triumphs, as well as two by Djokovic and one by Roger Federer. Armed with a lefty topspin forehand that was in many ways a descendant of clay-court maestros Vilas and Muster, Nadal at first glance appeared a defender in the tradition of Borg. But that was hardly the case.
Sound as Nadal is at patrolling the court, he is a forthright aggressor, keen to terminate rallies. Note also how he’s rounded out his game with a slice backhand, frequent drop shots and an excellent volley game. Ditto for Djokovic. As for Federer, his Roland Garros title run was greatly aided by him deploying the drop shot, a tactic he’d previously underused.
So look at the additional major contenders—2021 finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, Carlos Alcaraz, Alexander Zverev, even clay-court malcontent Daniil Medvedev—and ask: Are these mere “specialists”? Look further down the ranks at Andrey Rublev, Casper Ruud, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Cameron Norrie, Jannik Sinner, Hubert Hurkacz, Taylor Fritz and others.
These are scarcely players with narrow skill sets.Those who play well on clay have a full range of tools that can triumph all over the world.
Clay-court tennis’ age of specialization is over. Let us raise our water bottles and offer a toast to its passing.