Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How to Slide on a Clay Tennis Court: Video Analysis

Every year around May the pro tennis players make the switch from the hard courts in the US to the clay courts of Europe in their quest to be the world's best. Playing on clay forces the players to make changes in their game and as we know not many players are able to adapt completely and win on both the hard and clay court surfaces. Amongst the men, only Rafa Nadal has proved he can win consistently on both, while the women have only seen Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova as perfect examples.

The differences between playing on a hard or grass court and on clay are are logical as well as tactical. Here are a few:
  1. The clay court is softer and therefore puts less stress on the players' joints.
  2. The ball moves slower on most clay courts than on hard courts. This means players cannot dominate with their serves.
  3. The ball "sits up" more on clay, which means that it seems to hang in the air ready to be hit. This is why players hit more topspin shots on clay.
  4. Baseline ground strokes are much more prevalent than volleys on clay because of the reasons described above. The players find it difficult to hit a good approach shot. Failure to hit a good approach may allow their opponent to have a chance to hit a passing shot.
  5. Top players slide into shots on clay. This is more difficult to do on other surfaces.

We are going to analyze the slide shot on a clay surface. Players slide on clay so that they can change direction more quickly after hitting their shot. It's easier to stop and turn on hard courts because of the surface's friction; however clay courts can be slippery, and once a player stops running and positions his feet to hit a shot, his momentum will cause him to slide on the surface.

Therefore if the player does not slide correctly he will overrun the ball or cramp his shot. Assuming he was able to return the ball effectively he would then need to stop his momentum so he could return to the middle of the court and prepare for the next shot.

Let's look at some video. We found some video of one of the greatest female tennis players, Steffi Graf, sliding on a clay court. Watch it below:

We can see Steffi running and sliding into a forehand and then doing the same for a backhand. We can also see that she uses the slide to help her change direction and prepare for her next shot. In both her forehand and her backhand, she slides first and hits the shot at the end of the slide. This means she is hitting the shot from a set position.

We also note that after sliding and hitting the shot she no longer has any momentum carrying her further away from the center of the court. She can now recover quickly and get ready for the next shot. Watch how she is slides into her forehand and is able to quickly recover and get ready to run for the next shot, the backhand. Once again she slides before hitting the backhand and easily changes directions to get back into position to hit the winner against Monica Seles who is approaching the net in this point.

Before starting to slide we also see that Steffi positions her feet correctly in preparation to hit the shot she wants. She does not try to reposition her feet once she is sliding and before hitting the shot.

Our video analysis of Steffi Graf sliding on a clay court gives us some insight on how to slide correctly on clay. Here are some pointers:
  1. Slide before hitting the shot. This means your timing has to be perfect so that you slide into the correct position to hit a good shot.
  2. The slide is about recovery and changing direction. Therefore you do not want to continue to slide after you have hit the shot. After hitting the shot you need to be almost stationary so that you can push off and recover for the next shot. Once again timing is critical here.
  3. Get your feet into the correct position to hit the shot you want, before starting your slide. Once you are sliding you will find it difficult to change your stance without messing up the shot or falling over.
  4. You need to be able to slide for both forehand and backhand shots. If you cannot slide in one direction then your opponent may be able to take advantage of this weakness. Therefore when you practice sliding on clay, practice sliding to hit a forehand as well as a backhand.
This year's French Open Tennis has already begun and we are excited to watch the likes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Safina. We will be watching as they slide around the courts and looking for more clues to how to slide effectively on clay.

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Dudley Tabakin said...

Today I found a great video on ESPN that looks at different types of slides on clay. Check it out at

Anonymous said...

You mentioned that only Nadal has proven consistent in winning in claycourts and hardcourts, but that's not true. Just because Federer couldn't win the French Open before, it doesn't mean that he can't win consistently in clay courts as well. He's just not as good on clay compared to Nadal, in the same way Nadal isn't as good on hardcourt as Federer.

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