The Tennis Court – Section 04 – Types of Courts

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While the court dimensions and net are universally the same from court to court, the surface of the court can vary greatly. The only requirement for the surface of a tennis court is that it should be level and smooth. This is a unique phenomenon, no other sport plays on more than one type of surface. The NFL does play on grass and an artificial grass type surface, but both are still grass. While there is no rules as to what the court surface has to be made of, so in essence a court could be made of anything, there are 4 main types of tennis surfaces: hard, clay, grass and carpet. These four surfaces each have their own unique properties that can affect play in both positive and negative ways. The various surfaces can also affect the body, its movement and the movement of the ball. Many players will tactically play differently based on what surface they are playing on. Many players will also technically learn a certain way based on what type of court they mainly play on. People playing mostly on clay will tend to play almost exclusively from the baseline, whereas people playing mostly on grass will tend to play a more aggressive game and try and get to the net.

Hard Courts

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Hard courts are the most common type of tennis court. Mainly because they are relatively cheap to build and easy to maintain. Hard courts can sit for months, even years with no upkeep required. This makes hard courts very popular with private homeowners, apartments/condominiums, schools and municipalities. About the only problem arising with hard courts is that they can crack. Hard courts are very versatile and can be used for other purposes, like basketball. Most professional tennis tournaments in the United States are played on hard courts. Hard courts are often times two toned with the court being one color and the out of play area being another.

History

It was not until the 1940’s that hard courts were used in official tennis tournaments. In 1978 the U.S. Open switch to a hard court after having a surface composed of clay and before that grass. In 1988 the Australian Open switched from grass to hard court. This made hard courts the number one surface for grand slam tournaments with 2 of the 4 being on hard courts. The invention of hard courts made it possible for cities to make “cheap” tennis courts that could be used by the general public.  This took tennis from just being a sport played by the rich and made it accessible to everyone.

Hard Court Composition

Hard courts are generally made with a 4 to 6 inch concrete or asphalt base. Hard courts are then finished with a top layer of latex paint mixed with varying amounts of sand or other hard particles, which give them the gritty feel. Hard courts can vary in speed due to the differing amounts of sand and other hard particles, with the quantity and size of sand added to the paint greatly affecting the rate at which the ball slows down. More sand means less speed and the larger the sand particles the slower the speed of play will be. The amount of friction can also be altered with more friction giving the court more of a a clay court effect, where topspin is magnified. The extra grip and friction will resist the sliding effect of the ball and the resistance will force the ball to change its rotation.

The US Open is played on an acrylic hard court called DecoTurf. It has been using this surface since it switch from a clay court surface in 1978.

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The Australian Open is played on a synthetic hard court called Plexicushion Prestige. It was first used there in 2008. Before then it was using a rebound ace hard court.

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Effective Playing Style

Hard courts are generally more equalizing than clay or grass in terms of playing style, as hard courts fall in the middle of the courts in terms of speed. Hard courts are faster than clay and slower than grass courts. Hard courts do not really favor any style of play, as no one style is advantageous to use on a hard court. This means all types of players can have success on this surface. About the only players who struggle some on a hard court are clay court players who use a very extreme forehand grip, but even these players can do well on this surface, look at Rafael Nadal for example. As long as there are no cracks in the court the bounces off the court will be very consistent this means a player can swing with confidence as they don’t have to worry about the court making the ball take an unexpected bounce.

Cons

Due to the hardness of the surface a hard court is rougher on the human body than other surfaces due to the courts rigidity. Players with knee problems often complain while playing on a hard court or must limit the amount of time they play on this surface. The choice of court material also affects the shock forces on the feet, ankles, knees, and backs of the tennis players as they run back and forth. Playing continuously on a concrete surface can make these joints hurt. A variety of new, high-tech synthetic materials are also available for tennis court surfaces, keeping an eye to consistent, springy bounces, cushioning for the players’ comfort, and quickness of drying so the players can get back to their game after the rain.

Hard courts also get really slippery when it rains. Even a little amount of moisture can cause a slippery condition.

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Plus, when the court is drying it will not dry uniform which leaves several wet spots that can take much longer to dry and can be a hazard for players who try and play before the court gets completely dry.

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The older, less maintained a hard court, the more likely it will crack. Cracks in the court can cause big problems.  Playability becomes difficult with the ball taking really weird bounces if it hits a crack. Sometimes cracks can be a tripping hazard if they are allowed to get worse.

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The various spins on the ball will also not produce the same effect on a hard court as they will on other surfaces. Some may think this is good others bad. It just depends on how much spin the player uses in their game.

Pros

There are numerous advantages to having a hard court. Hard courts are the least expensive to maintain. They will last years with virtually no upkeep required. It is one reason most public tennis courts are hard courts.

Another advantage of a hard court is the ball bounce. The ball will usually have a very consistent bounce. This makes it easier to swing as not much thought needs to be put into how the ball is going to bounce.

Due to the uniformity of the playing surface the speed of shots is consistently the same. This makes the court suitable for any type of player.  Baseline players, serve and volleyers or all court player can all have success and shouldn’t have to adjust their style of play much.

Since the courts generally are a bit rough footing is very solid with little slipping.

 

Clay Courts

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Clay courts are the second most common type of court. Clay courts are very hard packed clay or sand covered by some loose clay or sand. The ball won’t bounce as fast off of these courts since the ground is softer than hard court. And once in awhile, the ball can bounce off a rock or soft place in the packed clay which will cause it to bounce up at an unanticipated angle, making it difficult to hit. Also, since the players are running on loose sand, they tend to slide around a lot. The ability to slide is required when playing on clay because players generally slide into shots rather than running and stopping when reaching the ball.

History

Clay courts were first used in the 1880’s in France. Grass had been the predominate surface for tennis before then, but the hot weather in France made grass courts quickly become unplayable.  Clay was much better for sunny hot areas, as it need no water-spraying and didn’t needed to be mowed. Within a year or two of its invention there were over a hundred clay courts within France.  Clay courts quickly spread to other countries.

Clay Court Composition

Clay courts are made of crushed shale, stone or brick. Their are various types of clay, each with their own somewhat differing properties. Red clay is slower than the green, or Har-Tru “American” clay. The French Open uses clay courts, making it unique among the Grand Slam tournaments. Clay courts are more common in Continental Europe and Latin America than in the United States, Canada or Britain. In the United States, courts made of green clay, also known as “rubico”, are often called “clay”, but are not made of the same clay used in most European and Latin American countries. Although cheaper to construct than other types of tennis courts, the maintenance costs of clay are high as the surface must be rolled to preserve flatness. The water content must also be balanced; green courts are often sloped in order to allow water run-off.

Types of Clay Courts

There are four main types of clay courts used

Red Clay Courts

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Almost all red “clay” courts are made not of natural clay, but of crushed brick that is packed to make the court. The crushed brick is then covered with a topping of other crushed particles. This type of surface does not absorb water easily and is the most common in Europe and Latin America. True natural clay courts are rare because they take two to three days to dry. There are many professional tournaments played on red clay including: the French Open, Monte Carlo, Madrid and Barcelona being the biggest ones.

Green Clay Courts

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Green clay, Har-Tru or “American” clay, is similar to red clay, the differences being that it is slightly harder and faster. Green clay is packed to make the subsurface. It is then covered with a topping. These clay courts can be found in all 50 of the United States but are located primarily in the Eastern and Southern states. In parts of the gulf coast region of the Southeast, green clay courts are often referred to as “rubico”. There is one WTA tournament played on green Har-Tru clay courts in 2011; the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina. Earlier there was also the MPS Group Championships in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, but that tournament ended in 2010.

Blue Clay Courts

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Former tennis pro, entrepreneur and owner of the Madrid Masters tournament Ion Ţiriac introduced a new blue clay surface for the 2012 edition of the tournament. This controversial change has been grudgingly accepted on the players’ side. Already in 2009, one of the outer courts had been made of the new material for the players to test it ahead of its 2012 implementation. Manuel Santana, the Open’s current director, has assured that aside from the color the surface keeps the same properties as the traditional red clay. Although Ţiriac claims that his only motivation was the improvement of the viewing of the match, both for the naked eye and on television, critics have suggested that Ţiriac might have been motivated by the fact that blue happens to be the principal color of the titular sponsor of the tournament, the Spanish insurance giant Mutua Madrileña. This year’s blue clay courts in Madrid were more slippery compared to traditional red clay, but it is not possible to know whether this depends on the color or on other causes (like depth, compression, thinness of the particles)

Novak Djokovic announced that he won’t play in Madrid next year if blue clay remains.

By wining the Madrid Masters on May 13, 2012, Roger Federer and Serena Williams became the first players to win a tournament on Blue Clay.

For 2013 Madrid went back to the more conventional red clay surface.

Maroon Clay Courts

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Maroon clay is similar to green clay. There is one ATP tournament played on maroon Har-Tru clay courts since 2008; the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston, Texas.

The effect of the clay surface is to slow down the speed of the ball. The friction of the court also cause the ball to jump higher than it normally would causing a ball that is both slow and sits up in the court.
Because of this effect on speed and height it makes it much harder to strike winners through the court. This favors the defensive player that is content to sit back and grind long rallies out on the baseline. It is also an added benefit to players to use excessive topspin because the surface will magnify the effect of their shot.

Effective Playing Style

 Since play on clay is relatively slow and the balls bounce higher then on other courts, play from the baseline is most effective.

Pros

There are several advantages to playing on a clay court.  The biggest advantage is that because the court surface is soft the court is more forgiving on the joints making it less likely for the player to sustain an injury. Clay courts are more advantageous for the back, legs, and ankles than hard courts. Clay is flexible, allowing a player to recover without having to slam down onto the court.  Slamming onto a hard surface makes the joints of the body absorb all of the shock instead of the court.

Clay courts also absorb heat better than other court surfaces. Hard courts will tend to radiate the heat off the court making playing a bit more uncomfortable during hot months.  Clay courts can be an average of 20% cooler than hard courts.

Because of the courts structure, clay courts tend to absorb rain relatively quickly.  Players can still play while it is lightly raining or quickly resume play within minutes of a rain storm.

Some people feel that the slower court allows for players to more quickly develop to a point of playing matches.  The slower bouncing balls makes rallies last longer as players have more time to get to and hit the ball.

 

Cons

There are numerous cons to playing on clay.  The biggest con is the slippery courts.  In order to properly play on clay a player needs to develop the ability to slide into each shot.  If done effectively the slide will finish just as the player is hitting the ball.  The ability to slide is a skill that can take a while to develop. Players not used to playing on clay will be at an extreme disadvantage while playing against someone use to the surface.

Another big con is the lines of a clay court are made from plastic that is quite fast.  If a ball hits the line it will tend to speed up significantly more than usual.  It can be virtually impossible to return a ball that has hit the line.

Clay courts have a high degree of maintenance costs.  Clay must be watered and groomed regularly, usually every day. Clay courts are subject to erosion by wind and rain; new clay must be brought in to replace the lost clay.

Clay courts can be dusty and on windy days clay can get into the eyes.  Clay will also stick to shoes and clothing so it can be quite messy.

Grass Courts

tennis_court_type_grass_titleThe grass court is the most difficult type to play on. The grass is very short, tough grass, growing on hard packed dirt, not unlike the grass on a golf course green. If the dirt is packed very well, then the ball can bounce almost as fast as it would on hard court. However, the courts can also have very unpredictable bounces, especially after the players have been playing a long time. The ground under the grass is never as perfectly level as hard court is, so there are always places that will cause the ball to bounce unpredictably.

Grass courts are most common in Britain, although there are still a few others remaining elsewhere in the world.

History

Grass Court Composition

Grass courts are made of rye grass in different compositions depending on the tournament. Wimbledon, with 100 percent rye grass, is considered to be slower than other grass courts such as Queen’s in London, and ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

Effective Playing Style

Most grass courts heavily favor those employing a serve and volley tactic, proponents of which are aggressive and willing to sacrifice points to secure more winners overall. This approach requires that practitioners finish the points off quickly, and allow the ball to bounce as little as possible on their side of the net. Serve and volley players take advantage of the surface by serving the ball (usually a slice serve because of its effectiveness on grass), and then running to the net to cut off the return of serve, leaving their opponent with little time to reach the low-bouncing, fast-moving ball. To utilise the tactic successfully, is important for players to move in quickly after the serve or the short/mid-court ball, and win the point with a volley or overhead smash. On grass, players attempt to hit flatter shots as a means of increasing power, conserving forward momentum beyond the bounce.

Cons

Grass is not usable all year round, and courts are particularly sensitive to extensive use.

Although more traditional than other types of tennis courts, maintenance costs of grass courts are higher than those of hard courts and clay courts. Grass courts need to be reseeded every year, and (in the absence of suitable covers) must be left for the day if rain appears, as the grass becomes very slippery when wet.

Because grass courts tend to be slippery, the ball often skids and bounces low whilst retaining most of its speed, rarely rising above knee height. In addition, there are often bad bounces. As a result, players must reach the ball faster relative to other surfaces, and rallies are likely to be comparatively brief.

Movement on grass courts is somewhat different from movement on any other surface. The slipperiness which characterises grass surfaces demands the utilisation of small adjustment steps to reach a suitable position from which to play shots. Players will lower their centre of gravity to get down to the low or bad bounce. Compared to harder surfaces, playing on grass is easier on the knees. Grass cannot be slid upon in the manner of clay; however, it is not uncommon for a player to slip and injure themself in an attemp to slide or rush after a ball. Capable grass court players tend to also succeed on hard courts, although there are some exceptions.

Grass is the one tennis court surface that changes character significantly during the course of a tournament, especially the most famous grass-court tournament, Wimbledon, which goes for two weeks. Grass is, after all, a living thing, and there’s only so much a tiny little plant can take of being stepped on by a world-class athlete running at full speed or digging in to stop running and change direction. On the first day of Wimbledon, the grass courts are a lovely green throughout. By the second week, huge areas behind the baselines and near the service lines are reduced to brown remnants of grass and a lot of bare dirt.

On such a fast surface, points tend to be relatively short; therefore, a grass-court generally provides the least exercise per match. Grass is tough on the arm, though, because the ball hits the racquet with more speed, and more speed generally means more shock and torsion.

The amount of torsion the arm suffers increases as the court gets more worn, because bounces become more unpredictable, leading to more off-center hits. Unpredictable bounces also introduce more luck into the game. A fast, unpredictable surface tends to discourage patience, as the potency of aggressive shots is enhanced and the ability to rely on steadiness is diminished, in part because topspin is a major tool for consistency, but it’s less effective and more difficult to execute when the ball bounces low and more difficult to time when the ball bounces unpredictably.

Whether grass is fresh or worn, it tends to be slippery, and even slight wetness makes it quite unsafe. While hard courts can remain playable for several minutes and clay sometimes indefinitely in a light drizzle, play must be suspended almost immediately on grass.

Pros

On grass, the serve and return play a major part in determining the outcome of the point, increasing the importance of serving effectively, and maintaining focus in exchanges which can be heavily influenced by lapses in concentration.

 

On a fresh, green grass court, the ball tends to bounce fairly consistently, but quite low and fast. As the ball hits the grass at the acute angle typical of most tennis shots, it bends blades of grass in front of itself, and laid down, they form a fairly smooth surface upon which the ball skids forward, encountering relatively few vertical protrusions to slow it down or push it upward.

The softness of grass makes it relatively easy on the legs (except when the player slips), and its shorter points mean less running. Shorter points also mitigate somewhat the stress on the arm, as the faster and more frequently off-center ball impacts are at least fewer. Racquet also meets ball generally lower on grass, and on groundstrokes, meeting the ball low usually strains the arm less than meeting it high. When a player does slip, grass cushions the fall, especially when it’s still untrampled.

If you’ve watched Wimbledon or the handful of other grass tournaments over the years, you’ve probably noticed seeing more serve-and-volley tennis there than anywhere else. Low bounces make getting under the ball to hit topspin passing shots more difficult, and unpredictable bounces add an incentive to hit the ball in the air; therefore, volleying becomes especially advantageous. Slice groundstrokes are also rewarded on grass, as it enhances their low bounces. Playing on grass thus encourages a versatile, all-court game.

Grass is the closest thing to a fountain of youth for balls and shoes. They don’t get to keep their good looks while enjoying longevity, but given a choice between green coloration and being entirely used up, I’d go green every time. Earth itself agrees.

Indoor Carpet Courts

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Not much needs to be said about indoor carpet courts.  In many respects it is a dying surface as no ATP or WTA tournaments currently are played on this surface.  The ATP last played a tournament on the surface in 2009.  It used to be the surface of the Masters Championships and the ATP World Championships.

A carpet surface is used for indoor courts and is the least common in tennis.

“Carpet” refers to most any form of removable surface material used on a court. Thick rubber-backed synthetic covering that can be rolled up are commonly used in indoor arenas. Carpet courts consist of a textile surface of woven or non-woven nylon, or a polymeric or rubber material, typically supplied in rolls or sheets of finished product, but can be any number of materials. This court is still sometimes used for a special event or a multi-purpose sports center.

 

It’s a fast surface with low-bouncing balls.

Pros

Very little maintenance is required.
Can be used as a temporary surface.

Cons

May require certain climatic conditions for installation.
Carpet courts vary in playing characteristics due to differences in thickness, texture, and materials used in the base and yarn.  So playing characteristics are determined during the manufacturing process.
Once worn, they typically cannot be repaired and must be replaced.

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