Tennis is played on a variety of surfaces, each having its own characteristics and advantages and disadvantages. Each surface affects the ball speed and bounce in different ways. Some players have a game more suited to a particular type of court. The playing surface of a tennis court can be made of clay, grass, a hard surface such as asphalt or concrete, and various softer surfaces such as carpet, rubber, wood and artificial grass.
A clay surface tennis court is made of crushed stone, shale or brick. Clay results in more friction between the ball and the surface, slowing the ball down when it bounces and causing it to bounce up high. This makes it harder to hit winners and results in longer rallies. The surface favors heavy topspin shots, which are difficult to return for winners on clay. A higher, slower bounce also makes it a good surface for smaller, quicker baseline players who may be less physically strong but are consistent and have a good defensive game. It is less favorable to players who rely on a big serve to win lots of points. Clay favors sweeping groundstrokes. Drop shots can be effective too, especially against a taller opponent who may have difficulty accelerating on the softer and more slippery surface. Players can skid into their shots rather than stop abruptly and this suits certain players. Another advantage of clay is that the ball leaves a mark on the ground, a factor that can settle disputes on whether the ball was in or out.
The two types of clay used for tennis court surfaces are red clay and green clay. Red clay is made of crushed brick that is then packed before laying the court. Other crushed particles are then placed on top so the surface doesn’t absorb moisture. Most of these courts are found in Europe and South America, where clay courts are common. Similarly, green clay is packed and then a topping is added. It is harder and faster than red clay and is used mainly in North America, where clay courts are less common. Clay is cheaper to construct but more expensive to maintain than other surfaces. It needs rolling to keep it flat, regular watering and, with green clay, the court needs to be sloped slightly to allow drainage.
The French Open is the only tennis grand slam to be played on clay. A player who is better on clay than other surfaces is known as a clay court specialist, such as Ivan Lendl, Yannick Noah and Andre Agassi. Other top clay court players include Rafael Nadal, Justine Henin, Bjorn Borg, and Chris Evert, although these players could be just as good on other surfaces.
A grass surface consists of earth and rye grass. The soil is hard packed before the rye grass is grown on it. This is the fastest of the commonly used surfaces. Minimal friction is created between the ground and the ball, so it skids quickly off the surface and keeps low. Players with a strong serve have an advantage. Rallies are shorter and more winners can be hit. A slice serve is favored on grass as it will skid through even faster and will be harder to return than a topspin serve. John McEnroe was an expert, and could be almost unplayable serving wide to the right-hand service box. Grass assists the serve and volley players, such as Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Venus Williams and McEnroe. Flat shots are an advantage too, which is one reason Jimmy Connors did so well on grass.
There are fewer grass courts these days as they are expensive to maintain, needing watering and mowing, and take longer to dry, although these courts remain common in England. It is a slippery surface when wet. Officials quickly bring out the covers at Wimbledon as soon as there is a trace of rain. Bounce can be variable, especially later in a tournament when certain areas of the court have become more worn through heavier usage. Players cannot slide into a shot in the same way as on clay. Also, smaller steps are better due to slipperiness of a grass surface.
These days, Wimbledon is the only grand slam still played on grass. The Australian Open stopped using grass after the 1987 championships and now uses a synthetic hard court surface. The US Open, played on an acrylic hard court surface, hasn’t used grass since 1974. Rather than change its surface, Wimbledon has made a concerted effort to slow down its grass courts in recent years to encourage longer rallies and for different types of players to do well. This move has arguably been at least partly due to pressure from clay court players. The All England Club now uses 100% perennial rye grass and a harder, denser soil, resulting in slower balls and higher bounces. This has led to baseline players doing well, such as Roger Federer and a string of younger players. The modern rackets mean the ball can be hit much harder and faster and there are now few if any serve and volley players on the world tour.
Hard court surfaces
These surfaces are normally made of asphalt but sometimes concrete. Paint or resin is usually applied to the surface. Hard courts are reasonably fast, but not as quick as traditional grass. Players who hit the ball hard do have a slight advantage. Topspin strokes are effective on this surface. The speed of the acrylic hard courts can depend on the amount of sand added to the paint. Little sand will make a smoother and faster surface, whereas more sand, and larger particles, will create extra friction between ball and surface, slowing the ball down and making it bounce higher. Hard courts provide the most even, consistent playing surface.
Indoor courts and other surfaces
The surfaces of indoor courts can be made of various materials. Carpet is the most common. Playing conditions vary depending on the length of the pile, its texture and what sort of fiber is used. Less common is rubber. This surface contains fine rubber aggregates creating a cushioning effect and reducing injury. The Paris Masters is played on rubber. A wood surface is rare outside real tennis. It is even faster and bounces lower than grass.
Synthetic grass can be laid on a concrete slab or crushed rock and is available in various colors and grades. It has a more even bounce than grass, is easier and cheaper to maintain, and has better grip and good foot slide. Similarly, synthetic clay gives a truer bounce and needs less maintenance. AstroTurf is a short pile synthetic turf surface, incorporating technology such as antimicrobial protection and rubber infill. It can be used indoor or outdoor and is faster than grass. Tennis court tiles are sometimes used too.
Overall, tennis playing surfaces are moving away from grass and clay to hard courts and artificial surfaces. These newer types of courts play more consistently and can be more easily manipulated to alter the speed of the game. They are also cheaper and easier to maintain than the traditional surfaces.