Joel Drucker believes we should call time on the phrase “clay court specialist”. In his piece for Tennis.com, the writer and tennis historian wrote how the term suggests a narrowing of skill when, in fact, players now can play well on any surface if they play well on clay:
[…] Certainly, there are some players who perform better on clay than on other surfaces. But to use the word “specialist” implies something narrow, subordinate to a skill set far more capable of true greatness. Bluntly speaking, the so-called “clay court specialist” is limited.
No longer is this the case. Once upon a time, it was easy to regard the way men played tennis at Roland Garros and treat that style as arguably peripheral to tennis’ main events. For what was clay-court success other than the ability to win matches simply by mastering the art of attrition? As Peter Bodo wrote in the book Inside Tennis, a splendid account of the 1978 tennis year, “Tennis at the French is trench warfare; lobs are lifted like deadly mortars, except they almost always come back.”
Omnipresent as defense was in Paris, what value did retrieval and net clearance have at Wimbledon and the US Open—the majors that theoretically demanded a far wider array of skills?
But the truth is that tennis in the 2020s—and that includes Wimbledon and the other two majors—is largely shaped by the skill set it takes to currently succeed at Roland Garros. Not just lofty topspin, but sharp-shooting accuracy. Not just consistency, but racquet-head speed. Not just the flat serve, but also the kick and the slice serve. Not just the retriever, but also the aggressor.
These are the qualities that have won Roland Garros now for many years and continue to define it today. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. If anything, those who thrive on other surfaces need to broaden their offensive arsenals if they wish to excel on the clay.
While I agree to an extent, I still think hard court supremacy in tennis plays a major part in how players approach clay and mentality plays a major part in the surface shift. In 2019, Reem Abulleil wrote an article called ‘Do surface specialists still exist in tennis?’
The mind is usually the main obstacle for players when it comes to adapting to a less than favourable surface.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said after her Australian Open triumph in January that she would have to change her attitude towards clay and grass in order to mimic her hard-court success at the other majors.
“I think mentally I don’t like clay. I always tell myself, ‘I don’t like clay’, so I never really embrace anything about it, and I think that’s something I have to change. And the same goes for grass courts, because I see people slide and slip and it’s a little bit frightening for me, so I just think I have to change my mentality,” explained the young Japanese.
Most Americans grow up with limited experience playing on the terre battue simply because they don’t have access to it in the United States. So when they start touring Europe and compete on the red dirt in Paris or Rome or elsewhere, they struggle, especially with their movement.
It’s a unique surface that hasn’t quite had the transformation that grass has over the last 20 years, which is a good thing in my opinion. But regardless of the words we use, Nadal is still the God of Clay. And great at pep talks.