Tennis Court Surfaces

The playing surface, also called tennis court surface, is a crucial factor affecting styles of play in tennis. While the sport originated on grass courts, the four classic tennis surfaces seen today include not only natural grass but also clay (typically red clay,) hard courts (usually acrylic or asphalt,) and rarely still classic Har-Tru green clay. Each surface produces fundamentally different styles due to divergent ball responses.

For example, tennis surfaces impact factors like ball speed, bounce height, spin potential, footing stability and more. Clay is the slowest due to friction from crushed brick, facilitating heavy topspin by Rafael Nadal’s ilk. Grass remains lightning fast with lower bounces, rewarding attacking serve and volley tennis. Meanwhile, hard courts strike a middle balance of speed and bounce. Understanding tennis surface differences grants insight into adapting tactics and equipment for personalized success tied to the given playing field.

The four main types of court are:-

  1. Clay   –   slow
  2. Hard   –   medium/slow
  3. Grass   –   medium/fast
  4. Carpet   –   fast

The Australian and US open use a hard acrylic surface and the French is played on clay.

Wimbledon remains unchanged on grass although the grass type has changed to give a more durable surface.

The court surface dictates the style of play that is going to be most successful. The slower the surface requires the player to exert more effort to win a point and demands a higher level of consistency.

Clay Courts

Unforced errors are not for clay court players  –  the best all-time clay courter has to be Rafael Nadal with Bjorn Borg coming a close second. Chris Evert also showed great consistency on clay.

Nadal and Borg possessed robust physiques that were resistant to injuries and capable of enduring the relentless rallying on clay. En Tout Cas, a British company established in 1909, constructed the renowned red shale court that bears their name.

This court has a slow playing surface  –  the ball upon hitting the shale slows considerably and tends to sit up rather than shoot forward as it would on an acrylic surface.

This has tended to encourage a certain style of play where heavy topspin and angles are very successful.  Rafael Nadal epitomizes this style and has had enormous success at Roland Garros winning 14 singles titles.

Hard Courts

Hard courts are now mostly an acrylic surface which has been developed from the 1960s when it started to replace tarmacadam and concrete.

Today the Australian Open and the US Open are both played on acrylic.  The former on Greenset and the latter on Laycold.

This surface is regarded as medium/fast and also requires consistency but does enable you to hit winners from the back of the court. Both Greenset and Laycold have several acrylic layers that are laid on an asphalt or tarmacadam base.

This base absorbs vibration without transmitting shock back into the players’ legs and body  –  this helps reduce injuries. The ball has a relatively low bounce and tends to move forward after the bounce rather than upwards as on clay.

The surface allows a competent volleyer to have success at the net and encourages fast serving.  John Isner has an enormous serve to use on acrylic and grass.

Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Pete Sampras are just some of the famous names to have great success on acrylic.

Grass Courts

Grass courts are the original surface and help create a garden party atmosphere at Wimbledon. With plenty of flowers and general greenery Wimbledon has a quite unique tennis festival atmosphere about it. The food outlets and tennis museum all add to the ”fun of the fair”.

Grass favours the attacking serve and volleyer but we are not seeing many of these players. Maxime Cressy is the only current player who serves and volleys on every point.

The recent change of the grass mix to 100% perennial Rye grass has given a more durable but slightly slower surface.

The ball is now tending to also bounce a little higher. Grass instead of disappearing as a tennis surface has maintained its popularity and Wimbledon is still probably the most prestigious of the slams.

Certainly protecting the two stadium courts with a retractable roof has helped guarantee play in all weather conditions. Players of past fame that have had success on grass are Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova  –  all very competent volleyers.

Carpet courts are mainly used indoors at the club level and not used by the ATP or WTA at professional tournaments. Some surfaces have a sand infill. 

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