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Anne Keothavong blog: Dirt balling


Originally published on: 07/05/12 00:00

I started my clay court practice at the LTA’s National Tennis Centre in Roehampton where I’m based between tournaments. Even if the weather is wet in the UK, I can still get some practice in there as two of the outdoor clay courts have a cover over them which means even the rain can’t stop me hitting the dirt.

Getting ready for the clay season is an important period of practice because of how much it differs as a surface compared to hard, indoor hard or grass courts. It’s much slower than the others which means it’s harder to be aggressive so the rallies are longer and more physically and mentally demanding. The most difficult aspect for me, though, is movement on clay and how comfortable I feel moving on the court.

What can make that particular element even more challenging is that every week clay courts play differently from country to country and even from day to day depending on the weather. I prefer the slow, heavy, wetter clay because I find it easier to move on in those conditions rather than when it’s hot and dry and the clay becomes quite slippery. When it’s hot and dry I’m a bit like Bambi!

Movement is an ongoing area of the game that I work on. When I’m getting ready for the clay I’ll do more ‘slideboard’ drills in the gym which help strengthen my leg muscles which will be worked hard during rallies. That involves wearing what I can best describe as kind of ‘slippers’ over your shoes and it’s an exercise that works the quads, glutes, hamstrings and groin. This might be the opposite to what most people would say about visiting the Italian capital, but Rome is a nice event when it rains! The clay is really nice to play on when it’s wet, but when it’s hot and dry it can go from one extreme to the other. Roland Garros has good courts too – Rome and Paris probably have the best clay courts in the world in my opinion – but, again, I prefer it when it’s raining in Paris.

Some players tinker around with their grip size when they play on clay. Some go down to a smaller grip size, which is said to help them get a bit more work or spin on the ball. Personally, I’ve never tried this but I will subtly change my tactics and how I approach points.

On serve, you’re still trying to go for your first serve, but you’ll hit fewer flat serves than you would on hard courts because you’re not going to get as many free points from a flat serve as you would on a faster court. A kick serve is definitely more effective on a clay court too as it can really get up after the bounce and take your opponent out of position.

You have to think more about how you play each point and how you construct points, outmanoeuvring your opponent and throwing in a few more drop shots and wrong footing them. One advantage is that because the surface is slow, you have more time to think about what you’re trying to do with the ball and to be more creative.

There weren’t many opportunities to play on clay when I was growing up – there are many more clay courts in this country now – but as I’ve got older I’ve actually learned to enjoy the challenge a bit more. In fact, probably my best result came on clay when I made the semi-finals of a WTA Premier level event in Warsaw in 2009.

Players are encouraged a lot more now to play on clay than we were back in my junior days and getting used to the surface as a youngster has great benefits. Since you’re not looking for a ‘quick fix’, playing on the dirt develops solid foundations technically, adds variety to your game, allows you to be creative, is great for fitness and improves mental strength too. If you’ve never tried it, give it a go!

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Tim Farthing, Tennishead Editorial Director & Owner, has been a huge tennis fan his whole life. He's a tennis journalist and entrepreneur as well as playing tennis to a national standard. He also helps manage his local club and volunteers for his local tennis organisation. He's a specialist in content about the administration of professional tennis and tennis coaching for all levels.