Keys to win on clay

Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Andres Gomez, Mary Pierce, Eva Majoli, Andre Agassi won the French Open. All of them understood the importance of being very familiar with the clay court surface. Our players used a very aggressive playstyle; we did not let them back up and preferred to stay close to the baseline. I remember Pato Alvarez telling me that with that style, it was impossible to win on clay. I proved him wrong many times.

To play on clay, players have to be able to:

  1. Move by sliding using the court to their advantage, and they have to be able to move side to side with equal skill, forward and backward, the emphasis should be on keeping their balance. At the same time they execute the stroke, keeping a low center of gravity and using wide stances—Slide-hit-recover without taking extra steps.
  2. We make sure that our students play as close to the baseline as possible; backing deep to defend is not an option.
  3. The players have to be in excellent physical shape; the points on this surface are longer. That is why it is essential to work daily on movement with tennis-specific exercises; this is done on clay courts, with the racket, executing shots.
  4. They have to be consistent and patient. It is challenging to hit straight out winners; the ball’s bounce is slower and higher; the heavy topspin is very useful in this surface.
  5. 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.
  6. On clay, more than any surface is imperative to control the center of the court; the player that owns the center has the upper hand. The first serve should be wide 70% of the time, to take control of the center of the court right away; the sequence should be a wide serve followed by a forehand to the open court. 
  7. The return should be high and deep in the middle of the court to neutralize the serve. When the returner has time and the score in his favor, he should attack the return hitting down the line.
  8. Another vital part of winning on clay is the mental part; the players have to be smart, aggressive, tough, relentless, and very disciplined.
  9. Nutrition and hydration also play a significant role in winning on clay; the matches are longer, so the players have to pay attention to this area before, during, and after the rounds. The hydration process starts the night before. 
  10. After the matches, the players need to have the proper cooldown, a minimum of 20 minutes on the bike, and a long stretching session, especially the lower body. 

I was a young boy when I learned a massive lesson during the US Open. This tournament used to be played at Forest Hills, a very traditional tennis club. For years it was a grass tournament; in 1971, it was changed to clay for only one year. One of the semifinals was Guillermo Villas Vs. Manuel Orantes. Villas was ahead two sets to one and 5-0, 40-0 in the fourth set. Most people had left the stadium, it was getting late, and the contest between these two players was un-exiting. There were probably only fifty of us that remained seated watching this agonizing match. Orantes kept fighting, coming back and doing the impossible, beating Villas. The next day he played Connors and won in straight sets. Listening to Orantes in the interview, he said that he was never out of the match, “after all, it is clay, and I am in excellent shape.” Through the years, I saw many comebacks at the French Open; matches where one of the players with the will, the stamina, and the determination to keep fighting were able to come back and win. On clay, more than any other surface, the match is not over until the referee says, “game, match.”

At least one month before the clay-court season starts, we move all the players from hard to clay. The type of practices, objectives, drills, and mental dispositions differ significantly between the different surfaces.