Is there a stereotype allergic-on-clay-player? How do you explain that players like Andy Roddick never managed to play on Clay, whereas other aggressive players succeed?
Technique and movement go together, step by step. Players that move poorly on Clay the stroke falls apart even before they start preparing for the shot. Roddick had a big serve and a big forehand, and his backhand was poor, so he tried to cover that side by hitting forehands, more comfortable to do it on hard that on Clay. On Clay, it was more difficult for him to run around his backhand because he had poor court positioning. At the same time, players that have weaknesses are easily exploited on Clay. For example, Roddick had a poor backhand, and his recovery on the backhand side was inefficient.
Most people talk about the importance of the first step to recover. Still, they don’t understand that the absolute most crucial factor in recovering, especially on Clay, is learning how to stop efficiently. Roddick was not slow. Still, he was extremely inefficient in stopping; his movement in the recovery process, especially on the backhand side, was his downhill.
Nadal can run around his backhand effectively because he moves exceptionally well; his recovery step is outstanding. I attribute that full athletic recovery to how well Nadal uses the court to his advantage by stopping strong, sliding, staying low, using a wide base, strong upper body, and maintaining his balance. It gives him the power to push hard to recover and get ready for the next shot.
Players who are allergic to Clay mainly due to a poor movement, not because they are not fast but because they can’t stop efficiently to recover.
How do you deal with players telling you that they are allergic to Clay or don’t like to play on it? And how do you work with them (technically, physically, psychologically)?
Today the ATP has 22 outdoor hard court and 21 outdoor clay-court tournaments; most of the 16 indoor tournaments are hard courts. In the Junior Circuit is the same, very even between Hard and Clay, so it is essential for the players at an early age to play and be proficient on both surfaces. When I got Nishikori at 13 years old, he was coming from playing only in Japan, where the surface is hard court and some of the fastest courts on the planet. For the first two years, from the ages of 13 to 15, I made him practice 90% of the time on American Clay or what people call green Clay. It was a simple reason; for a player to succeed in today’s game, they must be proficient on all surfaces. Technically and Tactically, he used to hit very flat with little topspin, making many errors. By making Kei play on Clay and using barriers placed three feet from the net, he was forced to hit a high and heavy ball.
Clay’s movement is exact; the technique is vital. Nishikori practiced every other day how to move with the proper footwork—starting by learning how to slide correctly, emphasizing how to stop using the inside leg and foot as an anchor, where the ankle has to rotate inwards, with extreme flexibility. The emphasis was on having the entire side of the shoe and his socks full of Clay to ensure he was getting very low and with a wide base to control the upper body. That inside foot was the anchor, he had to keep it touching the ground to use the inside leg to recover quickly and with enough power to maximize the first recovery step. The key to moving on Clay is to stop with balance and to recover with power.
The more the players’ practice technique, tactically and movement on Clay, the more familiarize they become with the surface. The physical conditioning program should also be tennis specific on that surface. Today players move very well on every surface, and their movement technique is a clay court mentality; most top players today slide on hard courts to hit a wide ball; in the nineties, players like Michael Chang, used the muggle step to hit that wide shot.
The key factor for their success on clay, was that these players (Pierce, Majoli, Agassi… )all understood the importance of being very familiar with the surface. How do you become familiar with this surface? What’s the specific training?
Have you a useful anecdote with one of these players?
From the beginning of my career, my philosophy has been that players have to play on every surface to become not only Champion but Stars. In the seventies and eighties were players that only play or were good on one surface, like the Spanish Armada of the eighties were top in the world ranking but were not seated in Wimbledon because they were not good in that surface. All the juniors that I trained, starting with Jimmy Arias, Aaron Kriskstein that were hard court players, became excellent clay-court players.
I am a developmental coach, which means that I start with the students at an early age, usual girls at nine years of age and boys at 12 maximum 13. I believe in working with talented players with high volume, and with a very clear plan that I put in writing; I call it a periodization plan. It is done starting way in the future, at 18 years of age, they have to be in the main draw of Grand Slams or will most probably continue playing college tennis. From that point, I walk backward one year at the time, writing specific goals, like tournament results, results don’t lie and can give a clear picture of the development assessment, what we are doing right, and what areas we need to improve in all aspects of the game. Having a clear plan in writing to build a player is as essential as having a plan to build a house.
When the talented players come to me, our first short time goal is to play the French Open Juniors; girls need to be playing at 15, boys at 16, to make sure they are tracking correctly. The way the ITF junior calendar works makes that tournament our priority, making South America’s clay circuit very important. All juniors know from an early age that they have to play well on Clay. All the players that I have made had followed the same road except Monica Seles; she was a genius, without a doubt, the most talented player I ever coached. Monica was a great mover on the Clay.
The most important part of their work out since they were very young was to play on Clay as much as possible, strokes, drills, points matches, and even more importantly, the physical conditioning tennis-specific to consider Clay their bread and butter. Players that were not used to Clay started slowly by learning first to stop using a sliding technique. I tell the players to take advantage of the surface by sliding and recovering without taking an extra step.
The best exercise to teach the students to slide correctly is rolling balls side to side where the student is forced to address the ball with open stances. The ball that the coach roll has to pass between the player’s legs, only open stances is allowed. The drill consists of eight to twelve balls. We also do exercises where the player has to recover short and deep balls; again, the emphasis is on stopping, using the proper sliding technique, and then recovering with a powerful crossover step.
When Mary Pierce was preparing for the French Open, she practiced on the American Clay, which is different from the red European or South-American Clay. Mary’s main drill was what we call two and one. She would hit against two boys that did not miss a ball, the first drill Mary hit crosscourt. The boys would hit down the line; she performed the exercise for three minutes without stopping. She would take a minute rest and do it again; she did six sets. Three minutes were hitting one-minute rest. After finishing the sixth set, she would take a five-minute break and start with the second drill where for the same amount of time and same intervals, she would hit down the line, and the boys would hit crosscourt. By the time she got to the French Open, she was a machine.
When I recruited Eva Majoly, during my first year working with her, we traveled to the Orange Bowl. At that time, it was a clay-court tournament, and she lost very badly in early rounds. After the match, I remember everybody telling me I had lost my eye. In their view, she could not beat her way out of a paper bag, which means she was a pusher. After going back to the academy, I let her know that pushing she was not going anywhere, especially on Clay, that she had to hit the ball with no fear if she wanted to be a champion. Every day we worked on high volleys and put away forehands to improve racket head speed. By the time she won the French Open, she was one of the most aggressive players on tour.
We used to say; don’t try to adapt your game to the clay. Play in your own style. Is this advice a good one? Even if training is a custom-made subject, could you give 5 advices (or more) to the players who don’t like playing on Clay?
The court speeds changed in 2002; since then, all surfaces play basically at the same speed.
When Agassi won the French Open in 1999 was the first player in the open era to have won every Grand Slam tournament on different surfaces. No player since Rod Laver had accomplished that difficult task. Since 2008 Nadal and Federer have joined Aggasi’s elite performance by winning grand slams on all surfaces.
Over the past ten years, the changes in playing surfaces have change how the game is played, and these changes have made the game more competitive. There were four different types of players, 1-Baseliners, 2-Aggressive Base-liners, 3- Serve and volley, and 4-all-around players. Due to the changes on surfaces, there are two styles of play, Aggressive-baseliners and all-around players.
Today, most players are aggressive baseliners. Players that feel comfortable around the baseline forcing the opponent to hit a short ball either inside the baseline or around the service line where they attack that ball with the forehand putting the shot away with so much power that the majority of the time ball does not come back. In the eighties, players used continental and eastern forehand grips, so they used to chip and charge, hitting an approach with a slice. They also had one-hand backhand. That is not the case today; players preferred semi-western forehand grips and two-handed backhands. Any short ball is a put-away forehand. The speed of the surfaces and the grips have changed the game.
If Agassi had competed today with the new slower surfaces, he would have broken every record in existence.
Players can’t change their style of play to accommodate the surface. I traveled with Nishikori to play his first Davis Cup match against India; the surface was grass. I told him to play his aggressive baseline game; instead, he listened to his teammate, Suzuki, and became a serve and volleyer, slicing the backhand and attacking the net as much as possible. That is not his style of play, and he lost badly, but he was young and learned a great lesson that has helped him the rest of his career. He has to stick to his playstyle no matter the surface.
Because of the similitude on today’s speed on court surfaces, the players can use their power baseline game to compete on every Grand Slam, and they don’t have to make extreme changes or adjustments depending on the surface. The speed on the surfaces today makes players have the same play style, making it possible for all players to play without a disadvantage on any surface. Again the only significant difference is movement, and players have to compete in all surfaces; the key is to start at an early age, with a high volume of work on Clay; this is sacred.
In 2012, you point out several principles for effective clay court play: movement, close to the baseline, physical shape, patience, attack a player’s movement, control the center of the court, neutralizing returns, mental toughness. What are the most important? Are these principles still effective in 2017?
In April 1991, I was invited to Spain to talk in a world symposium for coaches. It was one of my first events as a speaker; my talk was at nine am, immediately followed by Pato Alvarez, the King of tennis in Spain. My address was about modern tennis, playing on top of the line, taking time away from the opponent, and playing an aggressive baseline game. When Pato walked to give his presentation, he said that Jaramillo was a very young, talented coach but did not know about clay-court tennis. That especially on Clay, the players had to move back, and that defense was more important than offense. After all, he was the King; people looked at me as a young but inexperienced coach after his speech. Only a month later, at the French Open, Agassi and Courrier made to finals. Monica Seles won the women’s side, all of them playing modern tennis, close to the baseline, attacking, taking the ball up in the air with swing volleys, and putting every short ball away. After those results, people understood that the future of tennis had arrived.
In 1978 Borg and Villas had the longest rally in the game’s history, 86 strokes; that does not happen in today’s game. Players used to hit many crosscourt to crosscourt until one of them hit a shorter ball, and only then the opponent would change direction. It is rare to see an exchange cross court to crosscourt for more than three balls; players today change direction quickly. The clay courts are faster, but the players are a lot more aggressive; they hit the ball earlier, with heavy topspin and a lot more power. Even in the nineties, the game was very linear, Lendel had the most powerful forehand in the game. Comparing that stroke to Djokovic is not even a close similitude in how modern players prepare, load, and use the elastic energy to develop devastating strokes.
The game has evolved even more in the past five years, the statistics at the US open 20016, the average strokes hit in a point was 4, in the French Open 20016, 4 shot rally length were the majority of the points. It means that the first two shots the player hits are vital. For example, the serve and his first shot after the service will dictate if he wins or loses the point, equally is the same for the returning player, he most hit an aggressive return, and that next shot after the return will win or lose the point. It is not good enough to put the ball back in play; players have to dictate early and finish the point at the first chance.
Before, the servers had the advantage. Today the best players in the world are excellent returners. Statistically, male players only win 48% when serving their second serve, female players, only 42%.
Simultaneously, today’s best players are the best defensive players, not because they push, but because they give the opponents not spaces to attack. They move exceptionally well and attack and defend simultaneously by taking the space away, forcing the opponent to hit a low percentage shot. The first two shots will determine the outcome of the point.
Players have the same play style, aggressive baseliners, making the game more even on any surface and making the rivalries more fun for the fans.