Getting Down and Dirty - How to Adapt Your Hard-court Game to Red Clay

Rafael Nadal on clay
By Arturo E. Hernandez

I started playing tennis at 16 and have played for the last 25 years. I just missed my high school team. My college was in the top 20.

I have played some tournaments and leagues but I never played anything close to a match worth money. My first 18 years of tennis were all hard court.

I had played in Mexico, Brazil and all over the US but it wasn't' until 7 years ago when I came to Germany for the first time that I got to play on red clay.

Oh, my! This must be a different game. Everything seemed to slowdown. My serve seemed to be in slow motion.

I slipped all over the place. Coming to the net invariably led to doom. I got passed every which way you can imagine.

Over the last few summers I have managed to keep coming back to Germany for work and have slowly gotten accustomed to this foreign soil. I can say a few phrases and am slowly becoming more accustomed to clay courts.

In fact, just yesterday I said for the first time "I love playing on clay." Gone were my wishes of ripping winners, cracking the slice serve and serving and volleying.

How did I do it? Here are a few pointers:

1) The shoes.
For the last few years, I have simply brought my regular Barricades over from the US. I thought it was cool to take them back marked up with red. DON'T DO THIS!

This year I bought myself some Adidas Feather Clay Court Shoes. They have special soles with tiny cleat like rubber knobs which grip the clay very nicely.

You can slide but you don't have to slide. When you do it is because you want to not because you have to. This was the single best investment I ever made. I can even change directions now without losing my footing. Don't even think of bringing your hardcourt shoes.

2) To go forward you must take a few steps back.
I have always played on the baseline and hit on the rise. I am not that tall (5'7") and found that hitting on the rise gave me the advantage of giving my opponent his or her pace back.

Because my strokes are very compact and flat there isn't much margin for error and my game is well suited to a fast court. But on clay my frustration built up because I always felt insecure. I often times just bunted the ball back or even completely missed the ball because it hit an irregular spot on the court.

I would say that my on the rise shots were 50% less effective on clay. I wrote Tomaz Mencinger about it and he made it clear to me that I needed to make more forward and back adjustments on clay.

So I begrudgingly decided to step well behind the baseline (4 feet) and simply try and hit everything deeper and with more topspin. That is when the words "love" and "clay court" finally occurred in the same sentence. Guess what? It worked.

I could suddenly hit my returns well. My shots would not go out. Most importantly, I could still retrieve so many balls.

Balls that were winners on hard courts were easily reachable. Suddenly, I had become the wall that everyone dreads playing.

3) Pit Bull.
I played with a tennis pro, Sam Hughes at East Potomac Tennis Club in DC, and asked him why I didn't win when I played. When he watched me play a few points he noted that I didn't attack enough.

My shots were too conservative, often landing short. He told me to "attack like a pit bull." So I started hitting the ball harder and voila I begun to win more points.

But flat shots can work well on hard courts. What do you do on clay courts? You put more topspin. The way to attack is by making the opponent stand further back.

Topspin not only gives you much more margin it makes the ball bounce higher and that makes your opponents life difficult. So I had gone from trying to rip through the ball to ripping over the ball.

It is such a simple strategy and it worked. I am curious to see if more topspin helps my flat hardcourt game. But for now I am happy to spin away.

4) Variety.
Whenever I see juniors playing in the US I seem to see the same thing. Big serves, huge strokes and the slam dunk ESPN mentality.

Hey, I am a victim, too. I love hitting the clean winner past my opponent. The problem is that it is only one point and there are many ways to win a point with a less risky shot.

I sat down to watch a junior match at the German Tennis club I joined for the summer. Guess what? They were mixing it all up. Drop shots, moonballs, big strokes, and slices.

I saw every shot in the book from two 15 year olds. Granted, they are more effective on a clay court but I think that even on hard courts a well rounded game would help.

Do you really need to hit the same fast shot to win? Of course, not. I am sure you have played the dink, lob junk baller who runs through the best players on your court.

Clay allows you to learn more variety and this variety can then translate into a better game. It is this reason that I think the US is falling behind in tennis.

Europeans and South Americans play on both hard courts and clay courts. This hybrid game is more versatile and allows them more options than Americans.

Andre Agassi playing clay court tennis
There is Andre Agassi who managed to win on clay and hard courts. But he is an anomaly. Unless you are the cleanest hitter in the history of tennis I would advise you to learn to mix it up on clay.

There is one downside. Coming to the net on clay is much more difficult. So us hard courters to have the advantage of a more developed net game.

So there you have it.

You'll find a bunch of articles about how to play on clay. I have given you a few pointers but the real key is to learn to attack differently.

Slowly, I have begun to feel the bliss of hitting an aggressive clay court shot. On this surface, you hurt your opponent by making them hit a nasty deep, spinny, ball one more time. I sound like a glorified pusher don't I. I love clay.

Thanks to Arturo E. Hernandez (hernandez_ae (at) for the article!



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