Clay. Grass. PlexiCushion. DecoTurf.
The latest secret weapons for Tempurpedic? Maybe, but today I’m only talking about The Grand Slam courts and their four different surfaces.
By now I have outlined the four tourneys for you. To recap, seated players go from Australia in January, to France in May, to London in late June, and New York in August. That’s enough travel to make the average person a little scattered – but in addition, these pros have to adjust to an extreme change in the conditions of their courts in each location. For some, it’s a minor shift. For others, it’s intimidating, and at times, a deal breaker.
While Roland Garros court in France has always been a clay one, the others were always natural grass, until ’74 when US switched to clay, then DecoTurf, and ’87, when Australia chose Rebound Ace, then PlexiCushion. Now Wimbledon is the lone remaining green – and no court is alike.
A brief outline of what to expect on each surface:
The clay at Roland Garros: First of all, you’re playing on what is essentially dirt. France in May can get potentially humid. Dirt + humidity = one sticky court. You have to be extremely agile and fit to handle that footwork. Second, the clay slows down the ball and lets it bounce higher, this means a great receiver will do well, while a power server will struggle. Legend, Pete Sampras, endured a famous career-long battle with the surface. In the end, he was never able to come out on top.
The grass at Wimbledon: Similarly to clay, weather effects the grass significantly. Uncovered games are stopped and delayed constantly, effecting and shifting momentum. (Clay games are also delayed for rain, but are NOT delayed for humidity.) Even with the delays and drying, the grass is naturally a little slippery. Unlike shock-absorbent clay, grass propels the ball forward at lightening speeds and at lower heights. Speed-wise, grass is the stark opposite of clay, and thus helps players with different strengths. The winners on grass? The ‘power server’ we talked about who uses the speed to their advantage. In this case, Sampras dominated, with seven Wimbledon titles, (matched by Roger Federer) and Venus and Serena Williams, with five apiece.
Plexicushion at Melbourne and DecoTurf at Arthur Ashe: Both are hard courts, and many players and coaches consider the surfaces to be not only very similar, but a friendly middle ground between clay and grass. The courts are considered slower than grass, but faster than clay. US is an “acrylic” hard court, while AUS is a “synthetic” hard court. The majority of players tend to enjoy both because of the reduction of extremes, however they are also regarded as the most dangerous due to the sand in the top paint, which can magnify topspins and bother, or injure, a players joints. Andre Agassi is indisputably the best on the hard courts, holding the record for the most titles: nine total, five in Queens and four in Melbourne.
I asked my father, Steve Calleran, long-time tennis fan and recreational player, which surface he preferred.
“My favorite? I’ve always loved playing on hard courts. There’s almost no clay in America. But a local gym has ‘Har-tu’, American green clay – it’s a bit more forgiving, and these days, that’s a consideration.”
I laugh and tell him he doesn’t look a day over
twenty, thirty, forty.
There has never been an official admission from the US Open as to why they introduced DecoTurf at the conception of The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 1978. Perhaps they were aiming to be “new” or “high-tech”. Many fans and observers however, believe economics may have been involved. The acrylic courts cost almost nothing to maintain – just a couple cans of paint for the bounds lines. In comparison, grass and clay can rack up monstrous bills in up-keep.
In any case, when it comes to The Grand Slams, the material your playing on will always have some effect on your performance. My Dad summed it up:
“The surface is VERY important.”