Tennis fans often associate different playing surfaces with some of the biggest tournaments in the world. With the classic hard courts at the US and Australian open, the gritty clay courts at the French Open and the pristine grass courts at Wimbledon, each surface adds another wrinkle to the competition that players must adjust to.
In this blog, Geau Athlete and ATP’s world-ranked #60 doubles tennis player Reese Stalder, reflects on his initial curiosity on the impact of tennis court surfaces on match outcomes. How do these surfaces influence play styles and results? Moreover, discover how players strategically adjust their game styles and schedules to optimize their performance on varied tennis terrains.
Impact of Hard Courts
Growing up amidst Southern California's outdoor hard courts, Reese Stalder observed how this surface fosters aggressive play. "First strike tennis is often rewarded," notes Stalder. American players like Taylor Fritz and Francis Tiafoe epitomize this style, honing their power-packed games due to the court's nature.
"Hard courts encourage big serving and big hitting. It's about seizing control early, as retrieving becomes tougher once on the defense."
Clay vs. Hard Courts: A Tale of Patience and Adaptation
The texture of the court and how recently the court has been resurfaced are just a couple ways that can influence the speed of each court. Gritty, recently surfaced courts tend to be slower because the courts grab the ball upon impact, causing the ball to kick up. This results in higher bounces, and you might notice your opponent is able to track down more balls on these slower hard courts.
"Movement and strategy on clay are paramount. It's about outlasting opponents in lengthy rallies, a skill many European and South American players master."
Quicker hard courts have a smoother surface which causes balls to skid through the court with low bounces. In my experience, many indoor courts tend to have these characteristics. These quicker courts heavily reward first strike tennis which is great for developing an offensive minded game style. However, the drawback is that many players who grow up playing on these courts are not very patient. Instead of defending with height and spin, American players often opt for the low percentage play of trying to hit their way out of trouble.
Grass Courts: An Enigmatic Breed
Although grass courts are some of the most recognizable and beloved aspects of tennis, grass season on the pro tour is very short being only about one month long. Part of the reason this is the case is because grass courts are difficult to maintain and the more play the courts get, the quicker the court gets chewed up.
As evident on television, the beginning of grass court tournaments look pristine and perfect, but by the end of the tournament, much of the baseline and net area has turned to dirt. Grass courts are most common in England, with some other locations popping up elsewhere in Europe and North America. While English players grow up playing on grass occasionally, it is rarely the most frequented surface of any player growing up. These courts are lower bouncing and reward players who like to come forward and finish points at the net. However, grass courts have drastically changed in recent times.
Years ago, grass was much longer and long rallies were extremely rare and the best players in the world on grass would find much success utilizing the serve and volley. Nowadays, the grass is cut much shorter, and while they do clearly have a lower bounce than the other surfaces, they are closer to a lower bouncing hardcourt than the grass courts of the past.
“My impression of grass courts when I was a kid was that it would be drastically different from any other court I had ever played on. However, when I played my first professional grass court event at Wimbledon this year it was certainly not the shock to the system I expected.”
ATP Season & Surface Adaptation
Contrary to a fixed schedule, the ATP season offers flexibility for players to select surfaces aligning with their strengths. "Players can choose events suited to their game," Stalder explains.
For much of the year, there are enough events going on at one time where players can go play in places that suit their game better. For example, if there are clay court events going on during the grass court lead-up to Wimbledon, it is common for clay court specialists to forgo the entire grass season (with the exception of Wimbledon) in favor of the clay events. This adaptability allows specialists to skip certain surfaces for better-suited tournaments.
“I also have this line of thinking, and that is reflected in the surface breakdown of my season. Out of 29 events so far this year, I have played 22 tournaments on hard courts, 5 on clay and 2 on grass.”
Advantages of different surfaces offer for player development
There are certainly advantages and disadvantages on different surfaces and conditions. Hard courts encourage an aggressive, fearless, big hitting game, albeit sometimes at the expense of patience. Clay courters are excellent at point development and movement even if at times they aren’t as comfortable coming into the net.
Court conditions, even on hard courts, are much slower now than they used to be which gives an advantage to players who are willing to be patient and develop points. Nowadays, points are so grueling and players are such good movers that patient, high percentage tennis is often rewarded.
“One of my favorite parts of tennis is the different conditions that each surface provides. Having to make adjustments and find different solutions based on the different conditions makes for exciting matches for players and fans.”