When it comes to worldwide reach and scope, few sports hold a candle to tennis. To celebrate all that makes tennis so rich and deep, Tennis Channel kicks off "TenniScope." Authored by Tennis Channel writer Joel Drucker, these short pieces describe many of the fabulous moments and places, people and products that have added sparkle and passion to our sport.
Court Management and Claycourt Quagmire
By Joel Drucker
Dirt. Sliding. Dirt. Patience. Dirt. Movement. Dirt.
Welcome to claycourt tennis. Welcome to the surface where vanity carries little cache and tennis becomes supremely physical. Welcome to a world where Rafael Nadal is king.
Even people who barely know Lendl from lentils are aware that Nadal is a supreme dirt-baller, the only man over the last four years who's disturbed Roger Federer's ascent to tennis nirvana.
Nadal's comfort on clay is a striking contrast to the pains Americans often feel on it - particularly in Europe, where the red, rough stuff blunts what would be winners on other surfaces and even varies in playability from city to city. As my Tennis Channel colleague Martina Navratilova once told me, "Rome, Berlin and Paris clay all play quite differently. You better be ready to adjust."
And one reason Nadal is so adept on clay is that he's able to adapt not just physically but mentally. At one level, his game remains the same wherever he's playing: harsh, forceful, with plenty of defense and a physical and intelligent mix of attrition and offense. In a slightly different way, Bjorn Borg created the same type of air-tight oppression, leading his opponents to wonder what they needed to do to merely win a point.
But what I've found even more dazzling about Nadal is his mental approach to clay. This is not a man who's ever been seduced by notions that tennis should be pretty, an art form or anything but a bare-knuckled, grubby endeavor. In his quest to win the point he is less concerned with seeking closure than pursuing inquiry. Were he a business executive, he would be more facilitator than deal-maker. Watching him play, the sense emerges that the point will resolve itself of its own volition. But he rarely feels any need to terminate.
It's quite a contrast to what occurs in our country. There are times when watching American juniors play and train that I feel they have not learned or accepted - much less practiced - a mindset that rewards process over outcome. Jose Higueras, Roger Federer's new coach, has told me and many others more than once that "tennis is a game of errors." In Higueras' mind, this requires an understanding of the ebb and flow connecting defense and offense. Note the order: defense, then offense.
Now I'm not saying that the single cornerstone of claycourt tennis is patience and that Americans should merely become retrievers. Nor am I saying it's necessary to have grips and strokes like Nadal.
But I am urging a reframing of how to even approach clay - and, for that matter, the entire sport. "Why when a ball comes at you hard and deep at the baseline do so many Americans try to take the ball on the rise?" Higueras once asked me. "What would be so bad about taking a step or two back and then driving the ball high and deep?" For that matter, how many juniors practice two staples of claycourt tennis, the drop shot and the slice backhand?
Indeed, when it comes to clay - and, all too often, other surfaces - we Americans can be overly-assertive salesman, seeking the chance to close out the deal rather than balance defense and offense. And so, unable to flow, our players can get frustrated, spiraling downwards. If the situation calls for offense, we are fine practitioners of court management. But when it comes to managing defense and contemporary ebb and flow, court management is hardly an American forte.
I'll admit at the pro level there's also a bit of pragmatism afoot when it comes to dealing with clay. Andy Roddick and James Blake skipped Monte Carlo knowing that they've each got only so much bandwidth for European clay before zeroing in for Wimbledon. So goes the life of a pro.
But down the mountain, I urge coaches, teaching pros, parents and players to think a little less about cracking the ball hard and flat and more about more diversified tools such as spin, footwork and court management.
Joel Drucker has been part of Tennis Channel since the network first hit the airwaves in 2003, most notably as co-producer and writer of "Center Court," as well as working for Tennis Channel at many tournaments as an analyst and writer and since 2006 authoring this website's "Roving Player" column.
Drucker is one of the world's preeminent tennis historians, having authored dozens of articles on every generation of the game's leading players - from past stars Don Budge and Jack Kramer to contemporary greats Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer. Along with Tennis Channel colleagues Bud Collins and Steve Flink, Drucker is one of three American writers on the International Tennis Hall of Fame Enshrinee Committee - the group that each year builds the ballot for the worldwide panel of voters. Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, is considered by Sports Illustrated to be one of five "must-read" tennis books.
Read all the Tenniscope columns:
Happy Birthday, Ken Rosewall | Davis Cup: How it all started | Mixing It Up In Mixed Doubles | Aussies Set The Tennis Code | The Royal Reign of Margaret Court | Reflections on Michael Chang | Let's Take it Inside | Warm-Up Suits | Death of a Player | A Tale of Two Backhands | Court Management | Movie Review | Racquet Racket | Sampras: Book Review