Clay courts build a top-notch singles tennis player potent with skill and ambidexterity. And while India has produced a significant number of doubles players, the dearth of good clay surfaces in the country has not groomed any top-class singles star from the nation. The Top-100 in ATP singles has come to resemble a promised land, with only three Indians, Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri and Prajnesh Gunneswaran – when he jumped six places to be ranked 97th in 2019 – setting their feet. While there are a plethora of factors for India’s poor show in singles, including an underdeveloped system and poor infrastructure, an unexplored area in the discussions is the surface on which Indians grow up playing. While in Europe, tennis is largely played on red clay and there is growing evidence of its positive role in shaping youngsters’ style of play.
The red clay of the French Open serves as a canvas for the great artists of tennis in the art capital of the world – Paris. Hard courts may dominate the circuit, but clay has been the classroom to tailor future champions. As experts believe, clay serves the best surface for learning and mastering the game because of the range of skills and qualities it demands.
Clay tennis courts are favourable for players who can play defence. On clay, players preserve more energy since they can slide into their shots instead of coming to a complete stop. The bounce of a tennis ball is also higher and slower than that of a hard tennis court. Clay courts take away many of the advantages of a heavy serve, making it harder for players who rely on serves to win points. Though they demand greater fitness because matches tend to last longer but they are easier on joints, ligaments and the body in general. A clearer look will show, players trained on clay, such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Martina Navratilova, find it easier to adapt to hard courts than hard-court players faced with adapting to clay.
“One who learns to play on clay surfaces develops better strategies. In clay, you cannot escape with a big serve because the ball will be returned. You have to strategise your movement and outplay your opponent mentally,” says former Davis Cup player and current coach of India’s Davis Cup team, Zeeshan Ali, who also competed at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Over the years, the slowing down of the courts had sweeping effects on the game at its highest level. Matches began to homogenise, and the dominant style of play became a baseline-heavy, long-rallying, defensive game, like the one played by those who were champions on clay.
Zeeshan explains “It is very crucial for building a strong foundation and clay courts are meant to do so. Clay courts offer slower surfaces, which teach a young player to work hard for the point. Moving on clay makes them physically stronger because they’re forced to hit a lot. Secondly, because they have to hit a lot more to win a point, the amount of focus and concentration that is required to play and win every point helps them grow mentally. Thirdly, it is easier on knees. So one can look at spending a lot longer amount of time on clay court without really worrying.”
The lack of good clay-court players in India is a problem which coaches can vouch for. However, the All India Tennis Association (AITA) does nothing to address the issue. AITA does not keep a tab on the number of tennis courts in India, or what their surfaces are made of. On the contrary, clay courts are fast being replaced by synthetic hard surfaces to cut down on maintenance costs. Almost all tournaments in India are played on hard courts, including its only ATP event, the Chennai Open.
While initially cheaper to build, clay tennis courts require a lot of careful management. They may need lines painted more frequently and rolled more often than hard courts. Water management is also a factor since too much water on the tennis court will cause damage. Maintaining the French Open’s 15 match courts and 13 practice courts is a high-maintenance proposition involving 100 workers. Each morning, they uncover and sweep each court. After each set, the courts are swept, and the lines are brushed. After each match, the courts are swept, brushed and watered. And at day’s end, they are watered intensely and covered for the night.
Zeeshan says, “When we talk about clay courts in India, it’s not actually clay, which you get in Europe. The clay we have in India is a mix of mud and sand. It’s basically sand sprinkled on hard court, which is tagged as clay here. The players are playing on a surface which is much faster than actual clay where the ball bounces much higher. Also, because the court is very fast, the way youngsters learn to play here is very different from a kid who is playing on clay in Europe.”
Zeeshan also believes, that because of this wide gap, an Indian has never tasted success on clay. “Not too many Indian players know how to play very well on clay, it’s been always been the case with Ramesh Krishnan or Amritraj brothers, Leander Paes or a Mahesh Bhupati. Even if you see my performances, our results have been either on grass or hard courts, not on clay because, in India, you don’t have clay-court tournaments.”
India has never had a clay legacy to speak of, but its apathy to the surface is being exposed in the age of attritional tennis. The country needs to find its feet on international-standard clay courts to make bigger strides in the singles game. Zeeshan, who runs a tennis academy in Bengaluru, concludes, “Not playing on clay as makes a huge impact. In Europe, as kids train on clay, the easily slide their way and play the ball, while Indians face the problem while playing, the hit the ball and then slide. We need to build more clay courts so that the future generation can be trained. The problem is not building the court, it lies in building the right quality of clay court along with proper maintenance, which is an expensive proposition.”