This article outlines a thriving school of thought for developing clay court players with a more aggressive game style than traditionally used on Clay. The article discusses some underlying strategic principles for effective clay court play and drills that develop tactical awareness and competence. Ways in which coaches can successfully foster clay court competence within their players are outlined and discussed.
A successful clay-court player usually has the following characteristics; a more consistent game, powerful groundstrokes, patience, and good physical endurance. However, clay court specialists often have their disadvantages, primarily including less focus on developing their serve and net game (Martinez, 2002). During a career working with players including Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Andres Gomez, Mary Pierce, Eva Majoli, and Andre Agassi- all of whom were more all-round players than clay-court specialists, but who have won the French Open- the critical factor for their success on Clay was that these players all understood the importance of being very familiar with the surface. They knew how to move on it, they tailored their training to Clay, and most interestingly, they approached the game tactically in a very aggressive way.
The traditional and stereotypical clay-court player stays much further back and often reacts to their opponents more so than dictating play. It is commonly agreed now, however, that the existence of this counter- puncher game style is relatively extinct (Martinez, 2002). The modern player is now able to hit and dictate aggressively from all areas of the court. Players such as Agassi gained success using a very aggressive style of clay play. When working with these players during the clay season, they were not encouraged to back up, and it was instructed that they stayed close to the baseline. Numerous coaches in our experience have suggested that it was impossible to win on Clay with an aggressive style like this. This was proved wrong many times by the list of successful players above.
Principles for effective clay court play
Move by sliding using the court to their advantage; they have to move side to side with equal dexterity, forward and backward. The emphasis should be on keeping their balance while executing the stroke, keeping a low center of gravity, and using wide stands, slide-hit-recover without taking extra steps. The key to moving on Clay is to stop with balance and to recover with power.
Close to the baseline
We make sure that our students play as close to the baseline as possible; backing up deep to defend is not an option.
The players have to be in excellent physical shape to win on Clay; the points on this surface are longer. That is why it is essential to work daily on tennis-specific exercises; this is done on clay courts, with the racket, and executing shots.
They have to be consistent and patient; it is challenging to hit straight out winners; the ball’s bounce is slower and higher; therefore, heavy topspin is very useful in this surface compared to attempting flat winners. Especially on Clay, they have to follow the exact discipline sequence while building the point: control, hurt, finish.
Attack a player’s movement
Attack movement, the players must work on opening the court; this is done by hitting side to side and then behind, also attack movement with angles, slices, and drop shots. The idea is to hit the ball to all areas of the court, deep with high heavy spin, middle of the court with angles, and the short court with drop shots. Keep the opponent off balance.
Control the center of the court
The player that controls the center has the upper hand. On Clay, more than any surface is imperative to control the center of the court; The first serve should be wide 70% of the time, to take control of the center-right away, the next shot the server hits should be a forehand to the open court and once in a while behind the opponent. Once the opponent is on the run, keep attacking movement (control), once you have him out of position and without balance (hurt), then take advantage of the short ball and finish the point being aggressive (finish)
The return should be high and deep to the middle of the court to neutralize the serve; when the returner has time and the score in his favor, he should attack down the line.
Another vital part of winning on Clay is the mental part; the players have to be smart and aggressive and tough, relentless, and very disciplined to endure the more prolonged physical battles.
Training strategy and tactics for Clay the clay season
At least one month before the clay-court season starts, the team would move all the players from hard to Clay.
We used the following drills and principles during the clay-court training period with Monica Seles, Mary Pierce, Eva Majoli, Andre Agassi, Marcelo Rios, Jim Courier, and many more players that made history at Roland Garros.
Use of barriers
- To hit the ball high over the net with enough margin for error, no mistakes
- By hitting the ball high, it will also travel deep, high, and deep. No balls in the net, no short balls
- Getting used to hitting and receiving high and heavy balls starting with the topspin serve
- Use the barriers during the entire season, including playing matches
- Use barriers three feet from the net.
- Start with balls down the middle, working on consistency, make sure the balls are high, deep, and heavy, no pushing
- Hit cross courts first and then down the line
- Do the same exercise applying movement, for example, one player hits down the line, the other player hits the cross-court.
- It is essential to emphasize the use of the legs to execute each shot
- Many repetitions create muscle endurance, build aerobic capacity, concentration, discipline, and more than anything else, confidence.
Angle shots out of the basket
- Feel confident hitting angles from anywhere in the court
- Hit angles from both sides forehand and backhand
- Hitting angles on the run
- Attacking the middle court
- The coach places the basket closed to the net
- The first drill, feed ball close to the net, the player has to hit a very short angles
- Second drill, feed ball a little further back and closer to the service line
- Third drill, feed ball between the service line and baseline
- Four drill, feed ball to the baseline
- These four drills should be executed using all forehands, 20 balls per set
- Second basket, all backhands, 20 balls at the time from all the different positions on the court
- Third basket, applying movement, side to side from the different zones
Serve and return
- The player’s objective is the wide serve, Opening the court with the serve. The server aims to control the court’s center from the first shot and then continue attacking movement.
- Attacking movement with the forehand after the serve
- Returner neutralizing the middle of the court taking away the advantage of the server
- Using the barrier three feet from the net.
- Players play the points keeping score.
- The server places the serve wide and then hits a forehand to the open court. The server always looks to hit the “forehand” after the returner hits the ball back.
- The returner hits the return deep, and to the middle of the court, pushing the server back. The goal of the returner is to have enough discipline to neutralize the return playing high percentage tennis.
- Players most play regular sets making sure they follow this basic pattern.
- Using the court as a photograph
- To visually study the way the players are using the court
- Analyze the markings on the court from the ball impressions, as well as slide marks- it will be easy to see the patterns of play
- Using these marks on the court, the players can see if they are attacking all three zones of the opponent’s court: deep, middle ( use of angles), and short ( use of drop-shots)
- Easy to see the placement of the serves and to make out the depth of balls.
- Ensure the court is swept before the exercise starts, so there are no markings on the court.
- Players should play points without changing sides.
- After one set, take the players out of the court and, if possible, from a high position, study the marking on each side, look for the depth, middle (angles), and short sliding. Also, look for the markings on the serves; these marks on the court don’t lie, it will be easy to spot what the players are doing well and the areas they need to improve.
- After the first analysis, sweep the court again and play a second set, make sure the players improve their ball placement, and the way they utilize the entire court to attack the opponent’s movement.
This article has outlined some fundamental principles and strategies that can and should be used on the game of Clay while also proposing adopting a more aggressive game style for success at the highest level. Principles and drills for preparing a player for the clay season were outlined, hoping that coaches can begin to develop their players into clay court tacticians.