THE 127th French Open will start on Sunday at Roland Garros in Paris, France. It's the only Grand Slam tennis tournament still decided on clay courts. What makes this surface different from grass or harder courts, and what style of playing works best on it?
Clay courts are not really made of clay, but usually from an aggregate of fine gravel and brick chips. This sub-layer is softer and bouncier than other surfaces, so it reduces the ball's speed each time it bounces, and at the same time makes it bounce higher. Clay courts also provide poorer traction, with the result that many of the best clay court players use a sliding style to get into position to play the return shot.
Clay courts are physically less demanding than harder courts because the softer sub-layer absorbs more of the impact on players' knees and ankles. On the other hand the slower play means that points and matches usually take longer to decide. Players also have more time to react and plan their return, which means that the placing of the ball and other strategic considerations become more important.
The slower gameplay and higher bounce also means that a player with a strong serve has less of an advantage than on other surfaces. The game also tends to take place further from the net and closer to the baseline. A consequence of the required style of playing is that some of the top tennis players could never win the French Open, including Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Venus Williams and Virginia Wade. Others, like Rafael Nadal and Björn Borg, were equally good or even better on clay. – Willem Kempen