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Transitioning from hard courts to clay

Updated: Apr 15


Coaches’ Corner -- Submitted by Norman McCarthy

1. Overview

Some say I have the best job in the world! Tennis has been in my life for over 30 years and some days I do get to gaze at Table Mountain from a tennis court (hard court that is), but most days I’m hard at work solving tennis puzzles. These puzzles have come in the form of a player battling opponents from all over the world on different surfaces and different environments, to developing and nurturing young talent into formidable players. My base is a picturesque academy, in Cape Town South Africa where I am the owner/director and I head up the Elite high performance division. As a coach I have had a small amount of success with players winning multiple tournament titles including continental, ITF junior and ITF senior titles, but one piece of the puzzle still eludes me, not one title was on clay.

2. Transitioning to the Clay

In South Africa we have very little access to clay courts, so playing on clay is both an adventure and a nightmare. With no clay court tournaments of any stature for us, we meet the best “dirt ballers” on the road for the first time. Baptism by fire. It really is a tough transition for young players who are competitive and wish to learn the skill of clay court tennis. The first notable challenge is physical. If you have ever played on clay, the first thing you notice players say after a half hour of play is “my legs feel heavy”. Playing on clay challenges your balance and speed mechanics way more than hard courts. This means on clay flexibility and endurance make up a sizeable part of the physical package for juniors. Another physical challenge is points are longer with the ball slowing down and normal hard court attacking skills being less effective on the clay. This increases match length by almost double the time and this is where bad technique or unbalanced physicality lead to injuries. Next we are faced with tactical differences.

Tactically clay court players learn to play defense first and are more patient and comfortable playing deeper in the court waiting for opportunities to attack.

Hard court players tend to work on attack first with defense coming in at a later stage. Knowing this allows us to introduce the biggest tactical change needed for hard courters, learning to play the angles. An even bigger challenge is to do it from height as most clay courters play with more shape and spin than hard courters do, so strike zones change, footwork patterns are slightly different and movement needs to be better. The third element is mental toughness. On the mental toughness side, mental fortitude is paramount here as the better the clay court opponent the more patience the hard court player needs. A precise, patient build up on attack is needed and thus longer focus periods which can really challenge a player’s self-belief. We all know nothing challenges our self-belief more than playing the local “clay court” player who just gets everything back. Now that we understand the challenges a hard court player will have when transitioning to the clay here are a few things you can do to help yourself cope better.

3. How to prepare the junior tennis player for clay court season and match play (conditioning off court, etc and on court training)

Off court physical preparation for the clay court season would mean more endurance based exercises. There is no need to totally change your workout program but understand points are longer, so reps or “time on” in a workout should be longer with the rest periods remaining the same. Anaerobic endurance needs to be increased as part of your workout program enabling better recovery times for serious tournament players. Time spent on flexibility and balance should be increased and your dynamic balance should be tested often. An exercise to use as an example would be open stance extended Thera band swings. On court training would be practising cross court angles in different situations and adjusting your strike zone heights for all shots. Working on these two aspects first will bring the most returns. Once these are mastered you can address other aspects like variety. The serve plays a very different role in clay court tennis so work on the wide serves, add more spin and try to open the court and get your opponent off balance. As a returner work on adjusting your return position to give yourself more time to get a clean hit on the ball and neutralise any advantage the server might get.

4. Take home messages For junior players it’s paramount to get the basics right before becoming too detailed.

There are way too many aspects to be dealt with in this article when it comes to changing from hard court to clay. However over the years I have learnt these basics get you the quickest results:

  • Don’t be psyched out before the time. Everyone says clay is so different! If you understand the changes it’s not.

  • Make small adjustments to your patterns of play such as increasing the percentage of crosscourt shots you play in a match. Serve wide more of the time and practice returning from deeper in the court.

  • Adjust your physical training program to help you play longer points and strike cleanly when off balance.

  • Don’t make big technical changes to your game. Serena Williams and Roger Federer are out and out hard court players who manage to win often on clay with only small adjustments to their own games

  • Face your fears with bold self-belief and attack. Fear is not the enemy, fearing a loss is.

A final question to ask yourself as we end: The Rafael Nadal Academy in Spain has just been built with mainly hardcourts, why?

Written by Norman McCarthy

Owner of MTG Tennis Cape Town South Africa

Norman has played and coached internationally. His tennis school caters to all levels of players. The academy has produced top international players as well as many happy social players.

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