Why are tennis courts made of clay?

Clay courts are one of the most prevalent types of tennis courts. It offers a challenging aspect to tennis rallies owing to its surface characteristics. Clay courts have helped tennis players in expanding their range of shots and style of play. Historically, the dominance of Rafael Nadal on clay is second to none. Clay courts were what helped him get to the zenith of his career. The slam held at Paris is the only slam to be played on clay courts. So what makes clay courts unique and special?

Rafael Nadal on clay

1) History

At the tail of the 19th century, William Renshaw was giving some tennis lessons to few of his students on a grass court. But due to the intense heat, the grass burnt and lost its shine. In order to maintain the integrity of the surface, Renshaw took some red powder and scattered a thin layer of it on the grass. This red powder he took by grinding the remains of a clay pot. This led to the birth of clay courts.

2) Composition

Base preparation: The land on which the tennis courts are made should be bored till 4″. This is to ensure that tennis courts are not overflowed by surface water. Any roots, tree stumps, peat, muck, etc should be removed. The sub-base that is in use should be compacted to at least 95%.

Base stone: The base stone supports the future clay court that will be constructed. The base stone plays an important role in keeping the drainage consistent. The base stones are 2.5″- 6″ thick. They are supposed to be rolled and compacted after they are instilled. 

Stone screening: The ideal stone screening is done by granite. It makes sure that the compaction of the surface is maintained. It also sees to it that the surface is moist. 

Clay installation: The final step includes laying down the main clay material. It should be consistent throughout the length and width of the court.

3) Materials used:
Red brick dust: 1-2 mm

Crushed white limestone: 6-7 cm

Clinker (coal residue): 7-8 cm

Crushed Gravel: 30 cm

4) Types of Clay Courts:

• American Red Clay Courts
These are the most commonly used clay courts due to their ability to not absorb water easily. These courts are mainly found in Europe and Latin America. French Open is played on this variant of clay court. A subcategory of the red court is an En tout Cas court or a fast-dry court which has a more granular appearance.

• Har-tru courts: These courts are made of green clay which is mainly made from crushed basalt rather than brick. The green clay is generally faster and harder to play on. The Volvo Car Open in South Carolina uses this turf.

• Clay-tech courts: These courts use a more cost effective way of maintaining the clay court. This is done by regulating the sliding feature of clay with much more ease.

• Hydro courts: Hydro courts consist of six cells that are controlled by a water control box. These help in customizing the amount of water needed on the surface of the court, thereby making it more player friendly.

5) Play

Playing on a clay court is a lot different than playing on a hard court. Balls bounce relatively higher and undergo a lot of topspin. Rallies are usually longer due to the slower surface. Clay courts also give the player to provision to slide on the court which much more ease. 

6) Notable Clay-courters

Men: Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Gustavo Kuerten, Sergi Bruguera, Jim Courier, Ivan Lendl
Women: Chris Evert, Monica Seles, Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Margaret Court

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