Time to play on clay

The tennis calendar has reached an important turning point this week as the season switches surface from hard courts to clay.  The game’s big names have packed up their kits and flown from the humid heat of the southern US to the milder climes of the Mediterranean.  But what’s it all about, where is it all happening and who’s going to power their way to victory on the red dirt?

The clay courts of most high profile tournaments are actually made of crushed brick that is flattened and packed together to form the surface.  The main European tournaments are played on red clay though some others, like the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, US (won last weekend by Caroline Wozniacki) use green clay.

The main difference in moving from hard courts to clay is the speed of the game.  The composition of the clay means that the ball bounces higher and slower.  This gives players more time to return shots but, on the other hand, makes it harder to hit a winner.  The result is generally a baseline game with longer rallies that favours powerful, defensive players, as opposed to quick strategists who like to use all areas of the court.

If you’re looking for a man to bet on through the clay court season, you’d be safe with Rafael Nadal.  The world #1 has not earned the nickname “King of Clay” for nothing; with a record 81 consecutive wins on the surface, he is often considered the greatest clay courter of all time.  Last year he came back from an injury-plagued, title-free hard court season to claim every clay court Masters 1000 title and his fifth French Open.  If Novak Djokovic has got the better of the Spaniard so far this year, expect that to change over the next couple of months (not least because the Serb is currently sitting on the sidelines with a dodgy knee).

Another man who has proved his clay court crediblity is Robin Soderling.  The Swede has made the previous two French Open finals and will be hoping this year is third time lucky.  Also worth watching are Nadal’s Spanish compatriots Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, all of whom were also raised on the red and often produce their best stuff on the surface.

In contrast, some top players struggle to shine on the dirt.  Roger Federer won his first and only French Open just two years ago and is more formidable on the forthcoming grass courts of northern Europe, so any significant wins from him would be a surprise.  Expect Andy Murray’s drought to drag on a bit longer as he lumbers around his least favourite surface.  And the Andy Roddicks of the tour who rely on serves and speed will find things frustrating.

Over on the ladies’ side, the sudden second retirement of clay court queen Justine Henin after her Australian Open exit has left the door open for new challengers.  Wozniacki will be confident for more wins after a decent start to the year and earning her 15th title in Charleston.  There certainly seems to be a lack of any obvious competition following Kim Clijsters’ unfortunate announcement that she will miss most, if not all, of the clay court season due to injury.  Likely contenders, however, include the in-form Victoria Azarenka, who has broken into the top 5 after following up her Sony Ericsson Open triumph with victory on the clay of the Andalucia Tennis Experience last weekend; and current French Open champion and crowd favourite Francesca Schiavione.  Don’t rule out a resurgent Serb in the shape of Jelena Jankovic or French Open champion Ana Ivanovic either.

So where can you catch some clay court action before its classy climax at Roland Garros?  Well, if you’re not lucky enough to be in France, Spain, Portugal or Italy through April and May, here are the biggest tournaments to catch on TV over the next couple of months:

ATP Tour
10-17 April: Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters (Monte-Carlo, Monaco)
18-24 April: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell (Barcelona, Spain)
1-7 May: Mutua Madrid Open (Madrid, Spain)
8-15 May: Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Rome, Italy)

WTA Tour
16-24 April: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix (Stuttgart, Germany)
25-30 April: Barcelona Ladies Open (Barcelona, Spain)
1-7 May: Mutua Madrid Open (Madrid, Spain)
8-15 May: Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Rome, Italy)

Grand Slam:
23 May – 5 June: Roland Garros (French Open) (Paris, France)

Martin McGale

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