Tennis: Artificial road to clay days

Surface tension over the slow stuff may soon be easing as Britain courts the idea of a red revolution
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The Independent Online
THERE HAS BEEN mixed news from the European clay court battlefront of late. Tim is getting better but the condition of Greg is, alas, unchanged. With the year's second major, the French Open, a week away what is it about the slow, red surface that seems so baffling?

Henman, at least, has made a better fist of coming to terms with it this season, reaching the quarter-finals and third round of the German and Italian Opens, but he heads towards Roland Garros for his fourth year of competition there still waiting to win his first match. Tennis on clay seems to have fused Rusedski's wiring system altogether, producing bellows of frustration and pathetic comments that clay should be used for making bricks.

As a joke, this is on a par with those Spaniards and Latin Americans who shun Wimbledon saying that grass is for cows. To which Davis Cup coach and former pin-up John Lloyd says: "If your attitude is that basically it is a crap surface on which you aren't going to win matches, don't play on it. But if you do, try the best you can."

Even in these times of specialisation there exist on the men's tour people who can play decently on all four surfaces - cement, carpet, clay and grass. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi have won titles on them all; so have Richard Krajicek, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Goran Ivanisevic. Bjorn Borg used ritually to make the most demanding journey of all, winning in Paris and then hopping the Channel to do the same at Wimbledon.

Britain's best performers on clay since the era of Perry and Austin have been Roger Taylor and Buster Mottram. Taylor would chip and charge until his aggression destroyed the accuracy of his opponents' returns, while Mottram had the unusual background for a Brit of learning the game as a child on the shale courts at a club owned by his Davis Cup-playing father, Tony. So well did Mottram learn the skills of preparation, patience and sliding into his shots that he produced wins over Adriano Panatta in Rome, Yannick Noah in Paris and Rod Laver in Madrid.

Even the brick-making arguments of Rusedski fall flat if you think back two years, when Greg was runner-up on the US Open's hard courts and flew back to the clay event in Bourne-mouth, where he reached the semi-finals before being brought down by exhaustion rather than lack of technique.

However, much needs to be done about clay court tennis and it is heartening to hear that, belatedly, things are starting to happen. The shale courts once so popular have largely been replaced at clubs, at the bidding of members, by artificial grass and though there exist more than 200 HarTru (or "American") clay courts there are only eight of European clay in the whole country. Three are at Wimbledon, another three at the Bisham Abbey training centre and two at Queen's Club.

"It is essential to train on the surface on which international tournaments are played," says John Barrett, TV commentator and former Davis Cup captain. "Otherwise it is like teaching someone to be an Olympic swimmer by making him rush down to Brighton beach, jump off the pier and swim in the sea."

Barrett feels Britain's continuing failure to achieve anything on clay is a combination of lack of opportunity on the surface, the fact that most courts are of the wrong sort of clay for European competition and that our coaches don't know how to teach it. His recommendations are that the Lawn Tennis Association consider using some of their considerable Wimbledon-generated income to buy a club in Spain for training purposes and that British indoor clay courts should be switched to European clay.

A little-known drawback is that the French clay season is not much longer than Britain's grass year. Once frost affects them they need to be relaid. However, some 50 clubs in France have put down artificial clay courts developed by two companies in that country and last week the LTA's director of men's tennis, Richard Lewis, and recently-appointed performance director, the Frenchman Patrice Hagelauer, are travelling to look at some with the idea of introducing them to Britain.

"All the places without sun, like the north of France, Belgium, Holland and the UK are looking at artificial clay," said Hagelauer. "They drain so well that you can play as soon as the rain stops, they are easier to maintain and are much cheaper." Next year Hagelauer will introduce an inter-county clay event for 11, 12 and 13 year-olds. "It is vital that kids learn the tactics and technique of clay, as well as the different physical and mental demands," he said.

Mark Cox, director of the Rover Junior Initiative, is a strong supporter of the artificial clay plan. "No question, it would be a good move. After all, 50 per cent of the world's tournaments are played on clay.

"The HarTru courts we have here are more like shale than clay. They are good for teaching things like sliding and the winning of slower points but they don't exactly replicate French clay. Tennis on clay builds a different mentality from playing on fast courts, as well as a different body. Europeans and South Americans have bigger lungs, legs like tree trunks and a greater power of concentration because of the long rallies. All that is difficult for us to reproduce over here."

There is also the important matter of being patient on clay. John Lloyd admits his lack of it handicapped him, though he did better than Henman by getting to the Italian Open quarter-finals 21 years ago. "I also once beat Borg 6-4 7-5 in Monte Carlo, my best win on clay," he said. "Whenever I see him I always mention that and it pisses him off. He claims he had a broken leg at the time."