You’ll get a better understanding of how a player’s game may be impacted by the various court surfaces as you learn more and more about tennis. Rafael Nadal is the king of clay courts, if you know anything about tennis. You may also be aware that Roger Federer is arguably the greatest player to ever play on a grass court. What gives, though? Why can two of the greatest tennis players of all time play so differently on various courts?
In essence, various tennis court surfaces are built in various ways and with various materials. The speed of the shots, the bounce of the ball, and the players’ mobility are just a few of the characteristics of a tennis match that are impacted by the differing structure and composition of each court. Rafael Nadal, for example, performs better on slower, springier courts while some players, like Roger Federer, adapt better to faster courts with faster surfaces.
The most of us have probably played on one or perhaps two surfaces before, but you might not be aware that there are many more court surfaces available, and each one has a different impact on the player’s game.
The 11 different tennis court surfaces are made of acrylic, asphalt, concrete (also known as hard courts), artificial clay, hybrid clay, artificial grass, and carpet, in addition to other materials like wood and tile. Only clay (slow), hard (medium), and grass are used for professional tournaments (fast).
We will also discuss how indoor courts may affect your game since you can also find them with each of the surfaces listed below.
Tennis courts: How are they made?
Tennis courts can have a variety of surfaces, but they all generally go through the same construction process. Tennis courts are made up of numerous layers, and the visible surface (clay, hard, or grass) is often the bottommost layer. The four layers that make up a typical tennis court are formation, foundation, regulating base, and wearing surface.
The formation, which is often the initial layer, is intended to act as a partition between the ground and the real court. It prevents roots and organic matter from harming the court and is also referred to as the sub-grade. The court can be built on a level soil provided by the formation layer.
The foundation, which is the second layer, serves mostly to keep the court from icing. As a result, this layer is included to enable the court to drain and avoid any potential frosting. The foundation, sometimes referred to as the sub-base, typically ranges in thickness from 14 to 28 mm and should be positioned 150 mm below the surface. Depending on the surface, a court’s foundation will have a different drainage feature; since clay and grass courts need some moisture, the foundation shouldn’t drain completely.
The third layer is the regulating base, and depending on the surface, it has a very different composition. This layer creates a level, solid base for the real surface to rest on.
Finally, the wearing surface is referred to as the fourth and final layer. When we look at a tennis court, this is the layer that is actually visible. Depending on the surface, this layer may be composed of a number of thinner layers.
When Gustavo Kuerten played his final match at Roland Garros in 2008, he was recognised with a trophy made from a portion of the main court. A clay court’s layers are all visible in the picture below.
The Various Tennis Court Surface Types
The following categories now make up the ITF’s (International Tennis Federation) classification of tennis court surfaces:
(Hard) Acrylic/Polyurethane Courts
The most often used court surfaces in the United States are acrylic or polyurethane, which are typically categorised as hard courts.
Hard tennis courts are constructed with an asphalt or concrete regulating base and an acrylic or polyurethane wearing surface. These materials are used to paint the courts and white lines in various colours. Depending on the desired court speed, these courts could additionally feature a cushioned layer underneath the acrylic layer.
This type of court surface is typically categorised as medium, medium-speed, or fast. The wearing surface paint combination slows down the court when more sand is added to it. The bulk of the main professional competitions, including the ATP Finals, six ATP 1000 events, and the two Grand slams (Australian Open and US Open), are played on acrylic/polyurethane courts (Indian Wells, Miami, Canadian Open, Cincinnati, Shanghai, and Paris).
These courts can be bouncy in addition to being quick, which allows for lengthy rallies. Hard courts are ideal for big servers because they make it simple to hit many aces. These courts typically get faster in the light and heat. This implies that playing on the same court at two distinct times of the day may result in a different experience for a player.
In Europe and South America, clay courts are very common. They are thought to be substantially slower than hard courts.
A top layer of finely crushed aggregate, such as stone, brick, shale, or other loose material, is used to construct clay tennis courts. A thicker layer consisting of the same material, but compressed, is typically present beneath this top layer.
Strong baseliners and players who frequently use topspin in their shots would benefit greatly from the sluggish, bouncy nature of clay courts due to their design. Players can slide around the court on clay courts, which is an intriguing feature. Additionally, clay courts need more upkeep than hard courts since they need to be irrigated, rolled, and brushed more frequently.
Clay courts come in two basic varieties: red clay and green clay (also known as claytech or har-tru). Red clay courts are slower and more common in South America and Europe, whereas green clay courts are faster and more common in the United States. Due to its use for three ATP 1000 tournaments and one Grand Slam (Roland Garros), red clay is the second most popular surface on the professional tour (Madrid, Monte Carlo, and Rome).
The greatest player to ever play on clay courts is regarded as Rafael Nadal. He has amassed 59 clay court titles and 12 Roland Garros victories, giving him a 91.8% overall clay court winning rate (436 wins and 39 losses).
Nowadays, it might be challenging to find grass courts, which are thought to be the most elegant of all playing surfaces. In the past, grass courts were far more popular. Between 1905 and 1974, three Grand Slam tournaments were held on grass (Australian Open, Wimbledon, and US Open). Only one Grand Slam is presently played on grass due to the reduction in popularity of grass courts (Wimbledon). On grass, no ATP 1000s are held.
Because they require far more maintenance and cannot be used if it rains even a little, grass courts are becoming less and less common. These factors led to the main tennis court surfaces switching to clay courts and hard courts.
A substantial layer of clay, silt, and sand, as well as a natural grass wearing surface, make up natural grass tennis courts. To prevent water buildup, these courts also need a drainage pipe in the foundation layer.
Grass courts often cause the ball to slide as it bounces, speeding up the entire game. Strokes with slicing are typically more effective than shots with topspin because the ball tends to stay low and near to the ground. On grass courts, players who can hit flat shots, serve heavily, and volley well typically have great success. Some of the longest tennis matches in history have been played on grass courts because it may be quite challenging to break serves there.
Asphalt tennis courts typically have lower upfront expenses than other types of surfaces. This is the rationale for the asphalt surfaces used in many public courts. The overall long-term costs, however, can turn out to be higher due to the costs associated with maintaining and repairing cracks.
Since all hard court tournaments are played on courts with a finishing layer of acrylic or polyurethane applied to them, there are no professional tournaments held on asphalt courts.
Carpet courts were a common sight on the professional tour in the past. In reality, carpet used to be utilised at the Paris ATP 1000. However, as part of a push to switch to hard courts, the ATP discontinued holding significant competitions on carpet courts in 2009. The number of surfaces selected for major professional events decreased from 4 to 3 as a result of the adjustment (hard, clay, and grass). Three carpet tournaments were still part of the ATP Challenger tour in 2019. (Kaohsiung in Taipei & Eckental and Ismaning in Germany).
Although they are manufactured quite differently, artificial clay courts feel very much like natural clay courts.
Instead of constructing a layer of finely crushed aggregate, artificial clay courts are constructed by placing a specific carpet as a base. After that, a layer of sand or clay is put on top to create a texture akin to that of typical clay courts (slow shots and ability to slide).
Because there is no need to roll or water the court, this surface was created to require less maintenance. Since artificial clay courts are relatively new, they are not as well-liked as the courts previously described. However, they are now more common, and their population is projected to grow. There aren’t any tournaments taking place on this surface right now.
Despite the fact that artificial clay courts resemble clay courts, the game plays differently. Although artificial clay allows you to slide as on clay courts, the ball does not bounce as high. This speeds up play compared to conventional clay courts.
Concrete tennis courts are extremely similar to asphalt courts in both appearance and functionality. The primary distinction is undoubtedly the construction material. Asphalt courts are observed to have more cracks than concrete courts.
On concrete courts, there are no professional competitions.
Similar to artificial clay or carpet courts, artificial grass tennis courts are constructed. A specific turf is then built on top of the base layer for regulation. The top layer has the appearance of a grass court, but it is far softer on the body and requires much less upkeep.
The ball ends up sliding and staying close to the ground on this surface, making it play similarly to grass courts. However, this surface is less slick than regular grass courts, giving players much more traction. They make an excellent replacement for tennis courts installed in a home or park. Artificial grass courts are not used for professional competitions.
The ITF has already acknowledged the new trademarked technology known as Hybrid Clay as a new court surface. It was recently developed in Europe. It has a same feel to a typical clay court but requires much less upkeep. The ITF rates this surface as slow.
There are only a few Hybrid Clay courts in existence right now (all of them in Europe), and none of them are used for tournament play. It is really intriguing that this new surface can be constructed on top of any other surface already in existence. Some of the advantages touted by the HybridClay brand include lower maintenance costs, the fact that it is frostproof, and industry-leading water drainage, even if the construction process is kept secret (as it is trademarked).
I haven’t played on this surface yet, but I’ve seen positive reviews about it. The technology appears to be very promising, and it appears like we might start to see a lot more of these courts in the not too distant future.
The ITF also recognises tile, wood, and canvas as court surfaces. There are no events held on these relatively uncommon courts. They can be challenging to play on and are typically more faster than other surfaces.
In an Italian tennis competition, I have only ever played on a court with a wood surface. The competition was originally scheduled to take place on clay, but after multiple delays caused by rain, we were moved to the closest indoor court, which had a surface that looked almost like wood. I recall that it was nearly impossible to return any serve, and that the whole thing hardly felt like tennis.
Lastly, although if indoor tennis courts don’t always have a different surface, they are nonetheless important to note. Any of the aforementioned surfaces could be present on an indoor tennis court, but the roof gives the space a somewhat different atmosphere.
Since there are no windows on indoor tennis courts this time, there is no wind. Players can therefore take more chances because they have a better notion of where their shots will land as a result.
Second, compared to their outdoor counterparts, indoor tennis courts are less exposed to the sun and heat. They do not sustain as much damage as a result, and they do not speed up.
Finally, I notice that tennis courts indoors feel faster than those outdoors. According to what I’ve heard, this occurs because indoor courts’ compressed air gives the game the appearance of moving more quickly. Please don’t take these assertions to heart because I’m not certain that there is any science supporting them.
Only one ATP 1000 match is played exclusively indoors at the moment (Paris). Other ATP 500 & 250 and Challenger tournaments are also held indoors. Additionally, starting in 2020, all Grand Slams’ main courts will have retractable roofs, which could force athletes to play indoors in inclement weather.