Clay, the hallowed red dirt

Clay, the hallowed red dirt

When you think of clay, tennis comes almost immediately to mind. Of all the surfaces on which the sport can be played, clay is both the most physically demanding and the most subtle in terms of technique. This combination doubtless explains why – until a certain Rafael Nadal clay-med the surface as his own… – Roland-Garros was always the toughest tournament to dominate for any length of time.

Originally the use of clay was merely a practical consideration. The Renshaw Brothers, back in 1880 in Cannes, apparently used powdered terra cotta to cover grass courts that were wilting in the heat. Since then, technology has obviously developed but the concept remains the same. The earth is covered with a total of five layers each around 80 centimetres in depth: the first is made up of stones, followed by gravel, clinker (volcanic residue), limestone and finally a thin layer of crushed brick about two millimetres thick, giving the courts their ochre hue.

Composition of a clay court at Roland-Garros
  • 1- Red brick dust: 1 - 2 mm
  • 2- Crushed white limestone: 6 - 7 cm
  • 3- Clinker (coal residue): 7 - 8 cm
  • 4- Crushed gravel: at least 30 cm
  • 5- Drain

A different floor makes for a different game than the one played on grass or synthetic surfaces. Red dirt is slower, which makes for a brand of tennis which is less direct and more tactical – a veritable game of chess, where a certain shot can lead to a conclusion four or five "moves" later. It also brings out spin, and favours those with more light and shade in their game, be it topspin (the one and only Rafa), slice (Justine Henin) or drop shots (which certainly helped Roger Federer lift the Roland-Garros trophy in 2009). All of these subtleties come to the fore, while in terms of movement, it is of paramount importance for players to learn how to slide to good effect.

How to slide on clay, by Jim Courier, Justine Henin and Jim Courier.

Clay has always favoured certain countries – France obviously, but also Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean in general. Belgium, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Romania and even Sweden have similarly deep-seated affinities with the red dirt. Latin America is another of clay’s natural homes.

And it is certainly no coincidence that, for the past half-century, these countries have provided the majority of French Open winners. It is far easier to be born and bred on red dirt and learn your trade on it as a youngster – those who manage to turn themselves into dirtballers are certainly a rare breed.

And while it may be more demanding physically, clay is the least harsh of surfaces – it protects the joints and limits the risk of injury, making it ideal for any level of player, from the top pro down to the earnest amateur.

My Roland-Garros: playing on clay

Court maintenance during the tournament
  • Morning: the courts are uncovered and swept
  • During the matches, between every set: courts are swept, line are brushed
  • After the matches: sweep, brush, water
  • Evening: intense watering.
In numbers
  • 1.1 In tons, the quantity of red clay used to build a court, and this figure increases to 1.5 for the Philippe-Chatrier court, which is bigger.
  • 2 In millimiters, the thin layer of red clay on the surface.
  • 7-10 In centimeters, the thickness of the limestone layer under the red clay.
  • 8 The number of people needed to prepare a court.
  • 80 In centimeters, the total thickness of the 5 layers which make up the various strata of a clay court at Roland-Garros.
  • 100 The number of people responsible for maintaining the courts during the qualifying rounds and the tournament.