This article is partially excerpted from the forthcoming Secrets of Spanish Tennis Second Edition, coming soon in 2023! Vamos!
I have recently been working hard to finish the Secrets of Spanish Tennis Second Edition and get the manuscript to my publisher. The original book was published in 2014 and a lot has changed in Spain since the first publication!
What has not changed are the many advantages of training on clay. Many American players really hate clay. Sometimes parents and coaches feel the same dislike too. Try to keep an open mind about clay court tennis, even though it may make you or your player feel uncomfortable until all the nuances of the clay court game are mastered.
The following is an excerpt from the new book about the benefits of playing on clay. Enjoy!
“We play a lot on clay in Spain because we have a lot of clay courts and it’s good for learning the game,” said Javier Piles, long-time coach of David Ferrer, the 2013 French Open singles finalist. “On clay the players learn to move and hit their shots on balance even when they are under pressure and this helps them a lot.”
The ubiquitous red clay courts of Spain are perhaps the true “Secret” of Spanish tennis. As all Spanish coaches will testify – the clay helps the development of tennis players in myriad ways:
1. The clay in Spain is generally very slow, and by slowing down the ball speed, it becomes very difficult to hit clean winners when kids are young. Young players learn to win with consistency and patience rather than by trying to go for outright winners. Therefore the clay tends to reward defense and helps to tame hyper-aggressiveness. In Spain, young players learn quickly to play mature, responsible and balanced tennis rather than impulsive, aggressive tennis.
2. Because the points are longer and slower, players learn tactics better— they learn how to construct points rather than just hit winners. Players learn how to position their opponent, hurt them, move them around, and use the geometry of the court— they learn the chess game of tennis.
3. The clay is less stressful on the joints of the lower body and the back, allowing players to train longer and play more with less pain and fewer chronic injuries. The courts are soft and cushion the legs and back from the incessant pounding they receive in tennis. This is a frequently underappreciated aspect of clay court training that is very beneficial to players.
4. The slow ball speed on clay can assist in the development of proper technique in young, developing players. The balls generally don’t bounce too high or too fast promoting good grips and contact points for 10-and-under players, and the extra time produces a lot of long rallies for good quality stroke production repetitions. Therefore in Spain, the red, orange green progression that American families are very familiar with (and often frustrated with) here in the US, is not commonplace.
5. The slow and heavy conditions on the red clay force the player to maximize kinetic chain and racquet speed development in order to successfully compete. Players learn by necessity to develop a strong acceleration or they simply will not be able to attack well and win points. Many people don’t realize that the clay can coagulate on the balls and add significant weight in grams to each ball. Hitting a literally heavier ball makes the musculature more strong and powerful over time. The weight of the clay on the ball is reminiscent of the old coach’s trick to help develop power by dunking balls in a bucket of water before drills to make them heavier.
6. The inherent instability of the clay surface helps players develop better dynamic balance, stability on the run, and general lower body and foot coordination. Just as hockey players and ice skaters develop strong legs and fantastic balance and agility, so do tennis players who spend significant time on the slippery clay. In fact, in Spain the skill of sliding is often called “skating.”
7. Unexpected bounces on the clay develop reactive capabilities, hand-eye coordination and technical adaptability—sharpening the mind and nervous system. In addition, high bouncing balls help develop strength above the shoulder. Many do not realize that developing this last split second swing adaptability is a big asset for clay court trained players, no matter what surface they play on. Moreover, muscular strength and endurance on shoulder height balls is critical for players if they want to succeed on clay. Hard court players tend to strike the ball at lower heights. Those hard court players who have not been exposed to clay often feel fatigued in clay court matches because they are not accustomed to striking the ball frequently at higher contact points.
8. Because the points tend to be longer and the matches are often tough grinds, players develop strong character attributes. The clay helps teach competitors to control emotions under fatigue, fight, endure pain, and to manage suffering. For these reasons, Spanish players are often known as the best fighters in any tournament.
9. Due to the slow courts and longer points, players develop better general cardiovascular stamina and muscular endurance. The physical endurance of Spanish players has become legendary.
Here in New York, it can be difficult to find good clay courts to practice on. Sometimes the green clay is not maintained well or simply not available. Some of the green clay in New York is very fast, unfortunately, as fast as a hard court even! Nevertheless, even fast green clay still develops the athleticism of the player and some of the other aspects above. My recommendation is to seek out clay court training at least half of the week or half of the year. For the best benefits, athletes can train indoor hard court in the winter and outdoor clay all summer like players in many European countries do, or divide the training days each week into a half clay and half hard schedule for the entire year.
To all coaches, parents and players who read this article— above all else, don’t be clay haters! Learn to love playing on the dirt. The myriad benefits to playing on clay will help your game or your player’s game immensely!
Chris Lewit is a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player. He is a high-performance coach, educator, and the author of two best-selling books: The Secrets of Spanish Tennis and The Tennis Technique Bible. He has coached numerous top 10 nationally-ranked players and is known for his expertise in building the foundations of young prodigies. Chris is currently working towards an advanced degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science with a focus on Biomechanics. Chris coaches in NYC and year-round at his high performance tennis academy in Manchester, VT, where players can live and train the Spanish Way full-time or short-term. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail Chris@chrislewit.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.