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Coaches Corner - tip of the month

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Adapting to playing on these two very different surfaces, not an uncommon frequent requirement for club players – unlike tour players whose year is divided into periods of play on one particular surface - is simple enough, but underappreciated by most and not even on the radar screen of some. Sure, everyone recognizes that clay courts are far more forgiving on the body, particularly in areas of an older median age like Florida in particular, but there’s more to the mix than just that.

If the majority of your tennis is played on soft courts, then, going in, you should be acutely aware that opponent’s shots will have considerably more “gas off the bounce” on hard, especially if the amount of sand mixed into the final color coating – this determines the court’s speed - is on the thin side, or they are in need of resurfacing.

So what does that mean? It means that your margin of error regarding the timing of your racket preparation on your groundies will not be very forgiving, as it can be, somewhat, on clay. If you’re a bit late in preparing you’ll experience mis-hits, racket twisting, and bobble-heading resulting from the poor ball tracking that goes hand-in-hand when the ball is playing you instead of the other way around. So, you’d better have the take-back finished by the time the approaching ball bounces. Note: I am not saying “run with the racket back.” Instead, time the finish of your prep with the ball’s bounce based upon the speed at which it is traveling.

When transitioning from hard to clay the #1 challenge is to amp up your footwork. Clay courts, even good ones, can be an adventure in shot timing – particularly when the court is not groomed immediately before play - since a consistently true bounce, unlike hard courts, is not guaranteed. Factor in that the duration of time elapsing between an opponent’s strike of the ball and yours is slightly longer, a more energized ball “stalking” to “fill” the extra time is exactly what that amp-ed footwork is needed to achieve - good positioning or being at the right place at the right time to make your shot. Martina Navratolova lately has started refering to this, in the spirit of shot selection, as “position selection!”

Because hard courts are faster, the average height off the bounce is lower, resulting in a generally lower strike zone with many balls right in your anatomically ideal knee-high to thigh-high wheelhouse. Clay bounces on average are higher requiring a much broader strike zone, including all the way up to chest, shoulder, and head high, that is unless you’re a track star and insist on backing up all the way to the windscreen if necessary – getting as far away as possible from the net and the opponent(s)? - to allow the ball to get into that low hitting zone. Good luck with that.

Clay courts also require a serious commitment to patience: a) expect the ball to come back; b) don’t even mind. It’s okay. Third, fourth ball rally panic, leading to pressing and suddenly trying to “do something” when no real opportunity yet exists – it’s just rally ball! - is foolhardy and will result in a stream of unforced errors that will ruin your day. Shot making on the asphalt is far more rewarded so a more aggressive mind set is possible since you’ll be more able to dictate play…just don’t get delusional because you happen to make a freaky low percentage winner every once in awhile and begin to think that’s the “routine you.” Some patience is still required.

The footing on the two surfaces is also quite different. If you’re transitioning from your usual hard courts to clay try “skating” at first – literally shuffling somewhat from ball to ball - to get a feel for the surface traction, i.e. not being able to stop and start on a dime. If the challenge is the other way around then you’re going to have to pick your feet up off the playing surface as a countermeasure to the much higher friction coefficient of shoe rubber to court. You might hear a little shoe “squeaking.” Good, it means you’re moving!

Regarding doubles play, poaching is more doable on hard surfaces since opponents are not able to “hold” their shots quite as long - as they can on clay - when either returning serve or playing a groundie from the back, and, by going behind you, can catch you on an early bus to the next county.

Lastly, learning to slide into your shots on the dirt like the big boys and girls takes practice and is a learned skill. Some never get it down – would you believe Andre Agassi, a former French Open champion, remains, even today, among the many. Nonetheless, the main ingredient is getting down very low and timing your slide’s end right at the ball striking moment. Practice on a wooden floor in your stocking feet. See, nothing to it!

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Questions and comments are welcome at anytime for all tips present and past via email.

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