Before France, Madison Keys found her footing on red clay in Florida

Before France, Madison Keys found her footing on red clay in Florida

The USTA put down genuine European clay courts at its National Campus in Lake Nona, which is attracting top pros and building juniors.

At Roland Garros this week, No. 14-seeded Madison Keys has advanced to the third round with a 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 win over Priscilla Hon. She'll play Anna Blinkova on Saturday. 

ORLANDO, Fla.—"Now I love it."

That's how Madison Keys feels about red clay—and why not, after her run to the French Open semifinals in 2018, and her 6-1, 6-2 first-round romp of Evgeniya Rodina at this year's tournament. It's safe to say that the 2017 US Open finalist, whose massive serve and forehand are lethal on hard courts, has found a place for clay-court tennis in her arsenal. 

"I’ve definitely gotten more and more comfortable on it every year," Keys said. "Obviously, having a really good Roland Garros last year has given me some confidence on it."

It helps that the 14th-ranked American picked up her first career clay-court title this April in Charleston, complete with her first wins over Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki. But that success came on Har-Tru, the green-colored surface which accounts for the majority of clay courts in the U.S. Har-Tru is made up of hard, angular metabasalt stones. Red clay is an altogether different surface, created from crushed brick, gravel and limestone. 

But even Stateside, Keys gets very familiar with both variations. She's a resident of Lake Nona, Fla., the home of the USTA National Campus, which boasts 32 Har-Tru courts and six European red clay courts since its opening in 2017. The USTA imported 450 tons of authentic Italian clay, and it has made a world of difference in preparing Americans for Paris.

"It's real red clay," says Nico Todero, a USTA men's national men's coach. "We trained the maintenance crew to take care of the courts as well. We brought people from Italy to train [the crew]."

"The staff that we have out there, it's amazing," adds Jamea Jackson, a former world No. 45 and USTA national women's coach. "They are working like they are in another country because they require that kind of maintenance."

The Campus' red-clay courts get used year-round, but in the spring, pros descend in droves to prepare for the European swing. Taylor Fritz is based in Carson, Calif., but he came through the Lake Nona facility before beginning his best clay season to date. He's 13-7 on red clay, with wins over Richard Gasquet, Roberto Bautista Agut and Grigor Dimitrov. Of the nine American men to compete at Roland Garros, Fritz was the only one to advance to the second round.

The red courts in Lake Nona are also making an impact on the next generation of players behind Fritz and Keys.

"It's massive having it," Todero says. "We can use it as a tool. We know that many Americans grew up on hard courts, indoor courts, some maybe on Har-Tru, but having them play on red clay from a young age will help their development in many ways: point structure, patience and movement."

Competing on clay breeds versatile, fit players that construct points thoughtfully with an expansive skillset. The earlier players start playing on the soft, health-friendly surface, the more comfortable they'll feel and the longer they'll play. 

"It's an opportunity to save their bodies because they're playing a lot on hard courts," Jackson says. "It definitely helps with their knees, with their joints. And then there's the physical side it brings: You can't finish points as quickly, you have to use your legs more."

Jackson's favorite playing memory on red clay is the U.S.' 2006 Cup quarterfinal win over Germany. Back then, the American squad's only way to prepare for the tie was by heading to Europe early. Now teams, top juniors and pros come to Lake Nona in advance of their red-clay endeavors.

Some of Jackson's players will compete in the junior Roland Garros event next week, including world No. 54 Robin Montgomery and world No. 10 Alexa Noel, who just won a Grade A tournament in Milan. But first, on Thursday, Keys will take on Priscilla Hon and, for the second time in two weeks, Fritz will face Bautista Agut.

All of them can rely on the confidence they harvested from training on genuine red clay at the USTA National Campus. 

"You put some flowers out there, it's Rome," Jackson said. "They are unbelievable courts. It brings a whole new side to tennis in the States that we just don't see."