Holding Court

Clay's answers are in its contradictions

In the lead-up to the Oct 21-28 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, Courtney Nguyen will pen columns exclusively for The Straits Times. This is the second of an eight-part series.

What does a quintessential clay-court player look like? Ask that question 30 years ago and you get a very different answer than if you ask it in 2018.

What used to be a surface built for the indefatigable has evolved into one that sees the purest distillation of power versus guile in women's tennis.

Clay specialists have become a rare breed over the last decade, while the rise of the successful power player has become the newest novelty on the slippery battleground that has felled many of the game's greats.

The classic image of a clay-courter was forged in relief over the first 40 years of the Open era: Clay-courters were the physical specimens of the tour.

They were the artists, the swashbucklers who diffused power with guile and charisma, the tennis tacticians who brought the pain via a thousand paper cuts.

Romanian world No. 1 Simona Halep's tennis foundations were laid on clay and while not the strongest player, she adapts well to the surface.
Romanian world No. 1 Simona Halep's tennis foundations were laid on clay and while not the strongest player, she adapts well to the surface. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Clay is a temperamental surface, one that can shift and change with stunning speed depending on the environmental conditions.

The current world No. 1, Simona Halep, fits that classic mould. Seemingly undersized and underpowered, the foundations of the Romanian's game were laid down on clay and she remains the pre-eminent clay-court player of the last four years.

She has proven her mettle en route to two Roland Garros finals, but fallen short not because she was outsmarted, but because she was outhit.

When did the women's clay game shift towards the power players?

Most point to Maria Sharapova's 2012 run to the Roland Garros title.

She made vast improvements in her footwork on the surface. But her ability to take the foundations of her aggressive style and apply them to a surface that was built to unwind everything that makes her successful made the locker room sit up and take notice.

That she repeated the feat two years later, at Halep's expense, solidified the transformation.

Since then we have seen Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko pound their way to success in Paris. It makes you wonder whether the days of the clay-court classicist are over.

The 26-year-old Halep said: "With my style I played well on clay and I had great results, but if we look back - Sharapova won Roland Garros, Muguruza, Serena.

"They hit really strong. So maybe there is a possibility for the big hitters to win and also for me - because I like to slide, I like to run, I like to have more time to see the court and to open the angles. "

World No. 4 Elina Svitolina agreed, saying: "Well, it's not about the big hitters because I mean Simona herself - she is always consistent on clay and she's not such a big hitter.

"Ostapenko, she showed as well last year that it doesn't really matter which style of game you have, if you are on a ball, if you can have the good momentum and you have your chance, then definitely you can win on any surface."

If game styles are no longer a defining advantage on clay, what is the key to winning on the surface?

Adaptation. Clay is a temperamental surface, one that can shift and change with stunning speed depending on the environmental conditions.

The indoor clay at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix plays lightning quick. The altitude at the Mutua Madrid Open makes the ball fly through the air.

The more neutral conditions at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome and Roland Garros can play fast or slow depending on the heat and moisture in the air.

Unlike hard courts and grass, the best players on clay must be able to adapt not just to their opponents, but to the surface conditions.

That's why clay is often considered the most mental of surfaces. Clay is therefore the great neutraliser and the grand inquisitor. The more one-dimensional a player's game, the less likely she'll have the answers.

It is the most gentle surface on the body, yet requires the ultimate exertion. It neutralises power, yet rewards it. It forces the weak to become strong.

It lays bare a player's weaknesses for all the world to see and dares an adequate response. The solutions are found in the contradictions.

Therein lies the beauty and the tragedy of the terre battue.

• Courtney Nguyen is the senior writer for WTA Insider and host of the WTA Insider Podcast.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2018, with the headline 'Clay's answers are in its contradictions'. Print Edition | Subscribe