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Looking to improve your clay-court game? Tennis experts agree: footwork, finesse are key
Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri and others reveal the secrets to clay-court success.
Published Jun 10, 2021
WATCH: Take a closer look at the footwork from 2020 Roland Garros champ Iga Swiatek.
It’s always been the case that no playing surface more than clay reveals the raw physicality of world-class tennis. And seemingly every five years, an athletic upgrade arrives. These days, the relentless firepower of a Rafael Nadal or Iga Swiatek is a breathtaking sight, a vivid showcase of movement, spin, pace and intensity. “On clay you can really notice the fitness and see how much court these players have to cover,” says Tina Samara, a Denver-based coach.
Witness that kind of prowess and it’s easy to just take a seat and watch. How dare a recreational player even think he or she can learn from these greats? But there is indeed much to be gained from watching the pros on clay—so long as you pay proper attention.
“Movement is more important on clay,” says Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri. “You can get away with things more on hard courts, but clay is never consistent. The ball can skid and take different bounces, so you’ve got to be low and ready to adjust in a fraction of a second.” For a world-class example, Bollettieri cites Novak Djokovic. “His lower foundation is excellent, so he’s always well-balanced,” says Bollettieri.
Along with movement, there must come patience. “Don’t try to do too much with the ball early in the point,” says Bollettieri. One effective approach is to hit at least three balls deep and crosscourt before attempting anything else. Nadal and Djokovic each do this superbly. At the recreational level, patience and consistency alone can earn many a point.
“Clay helps you see how the players follow those patterns and directions,” says Emma Doyle, a high-performance coach with Tennis Australia. “Hitting crosscourt is essential and will just about always keep you in the rally. When you go down-the-line from the wrong place or without enough power and accuracy, you’ll have a lot of court to cover.”
Clay also can provide a deeper understanding of how points are constructed. “Most people think that to attack, they need to hit through the opponent,” says New York-based coach Chris Lewitt. “But on clay, height can a major weapon. Think of what you can accomplish by hitting the ball high and to the backhand.” Exhibit A: Nadal, his frequent go-to shot a high, deep crosscourt forehand that has shredded the contact point of many a backhand.
As author of the book, The Secrets of Spanish Tennis, Lewitt believes there’s much to be learned from watching the way Spanish players build points on clay. The base, of course, is a set of deep groundstrokes, as demonstrated not just by Nadal but also seen in such formidable players as Pablo Carreño Busta, Roberto Bautista Agut and many other Spaniards (ten in the top 100 as of May 17).
But mere consistency isn’t all of what can help a player thrive on clay. According to Lewitt, “On clay, the question is, how can you open up space?” Given the slow speed of the court, it’s vital to do this by stretching its dimensions. Wide slice serves and drop shots are great assets.
“Movement is more important on clay. You can get away with things more on hard courts, but clay is never consistent. The ball can skid and take different bounces, so you’ve got to be low and ready to adjust in a fraction of a second." Nick Bollettieri
“With the drop shot, don’t try to hit a winner,” says Lewitt. “Make them suffer. Let them get it. If they do, you can follow up with a pass or a lob. It’s like a body blow in boxing and an incredible form of psychological warfare.”
Technique and equipment have also evolved to the point that the return of serve and the volley have taken on new dimensions. In the era of fast courts and serve-volley tennis, it was vital to meet the return early, lest the incoming net-rusher knock off the volley.
But these days, particularly on clay, serve-volley is pretty much off the table. “On clay, you don’t get rewarded for taking the return super-early,” says Lewitt. So when returning a kick serve, it’s useful to stand far back behind the baseline, let the ball drop and take a good long swing that lifts the ball at least four feet over the net and goes deep and down the middle – and then make sure to scamper close to the baseline the way Nadal does.
As for the volley, the firm, deep punch employed on faster courts is far less productive than volleying short—be it a drop volley or an angle. But another viable option: the swing volley, a shot that in large part can best be viewed as hitting a groundstroke on the fly. But no matter how you seek to volley, Lewitt says, “You need to come up to net very responsibly.”
Study the pros closely, and with enough patience and consistency, you’ll find yourself competing more effectively on the clay. But don’t expect to generate anywhere near the RPMs of a Nadal or a Swiatek. Better yet to settle for some reasonable margin, improved fitness—and a darn nasty drop shot.