Nadal, Federer - Grass & Clay court
Please skip this if you are more than someone who is simply not a fan of Federer...

What makes Roger Federer the greatest tennis player of all time? The answer, counterintuitive as it may be, is not as simple as it seems. Most blokes would go by the metric of number of grand slams won in the determination of the GOAT, fair enough. Correct as such an answer be in fact, it does not capture the full magnificence of the Swiss maestro’s achievements, and fails to hit at what I believe truly makes Roger Federer so special. That which makes Federer so special is captured by Jimmy Conners, in these famous profound words of his

[In the modern game], you're a clay-court specialist, a grass-court specialist or a hard-court specialist... or you're Roger Federer. - Jimmy Conners

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying Federer is special because he is very good competing on all court surfaces. Other great players such as Murray, Djokovic and arguably Nadal would have met this liberal criterion. What is exceptional is Federer’s extraordinarily good performance on all surfaces, with such extraordinary consistency. Just look at the number of finals wins and final appearances for each of the four differently surfaced grand slams (stats are shown right below)

Federer:

Australian Open finals appearances: 6(5 wins)
Rolland Garros finals appearances: 5(1 win)
Wimbledon finals appearances: 11(8 wins)
US Open finals appearances: 7(5 wins)

Nadal:

Australian Open finals appearances: 3(1 win)
Rolland Garros finals appearances: 10(10 wins)
Wimbledon finals appearances: 3(2 wins)
US Open finals appearances: 3(2 wins)

Djokovic:

Australian Open finals appearances: 6(6 wins)
Rolland Garros finals appearances: 4(1 win)
Wimbledon finals appearances: 4(3 wins)
US Open finals appearances: 7(2 wins)

Murray:
Australian Open finals appearances: 5(0 wins)
Rolland Garros finals appearances: 1(0 wins)
Wimbledon finals appearances: 3(2 wins)
US Open finals appearances: 2(1 win)

Such a feat can only be truly appreciated when one becomes familiar with the different tennis court surfaces – the different features unique to each, and how such different features benefit different playing styles and techniques. Only then, can the supreme versality of Federer be truly appreciated and awed at by one.


Photo credit: Allcot

Grass

If you were born in Asia, or anywhere else in the world (including England), and are not a professional tennis player, I would bet my money on you not having played on a grass court before. Grass tennis courts are a rarity, so rare are they that a spontaneous discovery of one in the neighborhood would most likely set off a wave of excitement akin to one which would be produced by the discovery of extra-terrestrial life.

The materials…

The grass tennis court – or lawn tennis court if you may – is conventionally taken to be the most classy and sophisticated amongst the all the differently surfaced tennis courts. Such sophistication is not merely a matter of style, for grass courts are the most tediously and expensively maintained. Grass courts need constant and careful mowing and watering for them to remain at a decent level of quality. Apart from that, they are the most fragile tennis courts. The reduction in ‘grass mass’ we often see as the Wimbledon championships goes into its later stages, is testament to that.

What playing style it favours…

Grass courts are slickest of the bunch and make the ball slide, hence the balls on a typical grass court travel low and fast. You might have heard about how the composition of grass courts (most notably those at Wimbledon) have been altered to cause the balls to slow down and bounce higher. However, the stereotype still applies, and the point is grass courts are still faster and lower than the rest, hence their benefit to certain playing styles remain. You would be naturally suited for grass court playing if you hold your forehand grip in a rather eastern way (the more eastern, the more well suited you are), if you are a very aggressive player most comfortable with short points (be it a super-aggressive baseliner or serve-and-volleyer). Big servers would love the surface, as much the Goran Ivanisevic or Pete Sampras do, and the bigger the better. On the obverse, a Western forehand grip would stand you in disadvantage. Such a grip is ill-suited for low and fast balls, a big reason being the more pronounced lower turn necessitated by such a grip. Just think of Nadal and his not-very-glorious track record at Wimbledon (since 2012), compared to his exploits on the other differently-surfaced grand slams!


Photo credit: Complex Media

Clay

Clay courts is in between grass and hard courts in terms of prevalence and availability, I do not know about other countries, but the number of clay courts in Singapore is less than the number of fingers and toes an average human has, combined together.

The materials…

The clay that a typical clay court is made of is a combination of crushed shale, brick, stone – producing the either deep red or deep green colour. Similar to the grass courts but not done on the same level of intensity, clay courts are regularly maintained – the required actions being rolling, brushing and watering.

What playing style it favours…

Clay is the slowest of all tennis court surfaces, and it is the surface on which balls bounce the highest. Due to the slow nature of the surface, grinding long-drawn out baseline rallies are the norm on clay courts. Hence, the surface highly favour grunts who excel with their endurance and defence skills, who are very consistent and good at running down balls (which do not usually go out very far wide.) It favours the counterpunching playing style, to be precise and technical. The high-bouncing of balls when played out on a clay court also mean that the court surface favours players with a rather western forehand grip – the more western, the better. The typical shot produced by a Western forehand is one that kicks up high upon landing on the ground. As such, a ‘mutated’ kick kudos to the unique qualities of clay could be unsettling for the opponent on the other end, especially if he is one more suited for the lower balls and shorter rallies of the grass courts. Think Nadal - the only tennis player famous to all who uses the Western forehand grip -who has won 10 times on the clay courts of the French Open!

US Tennis open court
Photo credit: ESPN

Hard

Hard is the most common tennis court surface, given that it is cheap and easy maintain. Almost every public or private tennis court in Asia is hard, boring is it not? Ubiquitous as hard courts may be in our environment, our understanding of what a hard court is and its unique impact on our game is much less common.

The materials…

Hard courts are typically made of asphalt or concrete that has a layer of padding, which is then covered with paint (which would have sand added to it). The speed of the court is dependent on how much sand is added to the paint, more sand added in to the paint would cause the balls to travel slower.

What playing style it favours…

If we apply the Goldilocks rule to our evaluation of the different tennis court surfaces, hard would be the court surface that has just the right amount of each quality or factor. The ball on a typical hard-court travel fast, but not as fast as when played on a grass court. The ball on a typical hard-court kick up high, but not as high as a ball that is played on clay court. Now given that hard is the tennis court surface that is just right, it follows that it advantages the player who uses a forehand grip that is just right. Such forehand grip is the semi-western, held at a spot on the grip halfway between the western and eastern forehands. The semi-western forehand is not ‘specialized’ in either the drive or the spin, whose ‘masters’ are the eastern forehand and western forehand respectively. This mediocrity – if you may – in both fronts gives the semi-western grip a all-rounded balance of attributes well-suited to this ‘court surface of balance.’ The supreme examples of such a ‘player of balance’ are Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who have lorded over the hard-court grand slams more than any other tennis player in this age. Djokovic’s six victories on the hard courts of Australian Open and Murray’s 5 appearances at the Australian Open finals is testament to such mastery!


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