Tennis: How Grass and Clay Courts Differ

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Tennis has evolved dramatically since its inception in the 19th century in the United Kingdom.

The sport was originally labelled “lawn tennis” by the English and it became popular in both France and the United States shortly after. Over time, the sport has gone through major overhauls since it was mainly a pursuit for the upper class British who participated in it purely as a recreational and social activity.

Lawn tennis back then was predominantly played on grass and seldom anyway else. However, as the years went on the game progressed and tennis became more popular, and so did the desire to build tennis courts in urban areas not always flush with greenery. British company En Tout Cas came up with a “crushed brick surface” that would successfully allow water to run through its cracks and thus eliminate the issue of collecting water on the outer surface. This surface would later be called “continental clay” universally and adopted by many countries.

The aforementioned surface was in great demand with Spain, France and Italy, all building these more “natural” clay courts during the 1930s. The En Tout Cas-built courts were soon used for the Davis Cup and the French Open. They would later be chosen as the surface for the Australian Open – the second Grand Slam event to use this surface.

Obviously tennis rackets have also come a long way since the early days, and the type of racket used is now dependent on the surfaces a professional is playing on. Clay courts after all are considered the slower surface compared to grass. Why? Mainly because the ball tends to bounce higher which tends to lend to longer rallies. Also, this type of court is favoured by the stronger baseline players and players that are defensively very adept. Among the strongest clay courters are the likes of Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg and ‘The King of Clay’ himself, Rafael Nadal.

The obvious reference point for grass is the revered Wimbledon tournament, held every year in London, Great Britain. With the biggest overall prize pool out of all the Grand Slam tournaments at $39.76 million, Wimbledon is also the most prestigious. Additionally, it’s one of the most difficult to win.

But how do the grass courts of Wimbledon differ from, for instance the red clay of the French Open? Firstly, grass courts are a lot more slippery than clay, often causing players to slip especially if the surface has been subject to rainfall. Also, grass retains water which heightens the chances of a player slipping and can cause play to stop until weather conditions improve. Although tennis shoe technology has developed rapidly over the last decade, slipping is still an issue when on grass.

The overall play on grass is a lot faster too with the ball bouncing lower than on clay while still retaining speed and very rarely bouncing above knee height. Balls often skid off grass, especially if it has rained,  which makes it harder for players to maintain long rallies.

When you watch Wimbledon, the first thing you’ll notice is the frantic pace of games. This is predominantly because of the ‘Serve and Volley’ tactic that is often employed by many players – the successful players are usually referred to as “grass-court specialists.” Some of the most famous grass-court specialists who have had success at Wimbledon include Steffi Graff, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Martina Navratilova – all winning at least 5 championships.

With Wimbledon running between June 29 and July 12 this year, make sure you don’t miss out on the action. If this article clarifies anything, it’s that generally, regardless of technological advancements in equipment, clothing and footwear, grass court tennis is still the most exciting surface that tennis is played on today. And it arguably is the hardest surface to master of them all. So, with that in mind, we bid you farewell and hope you enjoy the upcoming Wimbledon championships in what will no doubt be another enthralling tournament.