By Melinda Samson, Special for Tennis Grandstand
To win the tennis grand slam a player needs strength, skill, stamina, smarts and staying power. They also need to play exceptional tennis on all tennis court surfaces; hard court, clay and grass.
The varying surfaces are something that I love about tennis. After all, what other professional sports men and women need to adjust to their game to three different surfaces during the same year?
To find out what it takes to win on all surfaces, I interviewed former Australian ATP tennis player Scott Draper. Scott won the Wimbledon Junior Doubles title in 1992, Queens Club Championship in 1998 and partnered with Sam Stosur to win the Australian Open Mixed Doubles title in 2005. He reached a career high ranking of 42 in 1998 and now looks after player development for Under 16s for Tennis Australia, managing five tennis academies throughout Australia.
After hearing what Scott had to say, I have even more respect for the sport of tennis and the players. I know a lot of tennis fans have a huge knowledge of the technicalities of the game but not being one of them, I learned a lot from Scott’s answers during the interview.
What changes have you seen to the way grand slam tournaments are played?
The game has become faster as player skills, flexibility and movement have improved. And the impact of changes in racquet strings, balls and equipment over the past 20 years has been extraordinary.
Tennis has become a game of physical warfare. Players still have many different games styles but now it’s possible to completely overpower your opponent, which I think that has taken away some of the flair of the game.
What are the main differences between the grand slam tennis court surfaces?
Although each surface is different in terms of speed and height of the bounce of the ball, the aim is for all surfaces to be set up to be fair and equitable for all types of players.
Generally for the courts:
• Clay courts are slower, have higher bounce and more spin
• Hard courts are typically medium speed with true bounce
• Grass courts are fast with lower bounce.
Here are some of the specifics of courts at the slams.
1. Clay Courts at Roland Garros
The speed of play on the clay at Roland Garros is weather dependent; the courts can be fast on a hot day but when it’s rainy the balls are heavier and courts are slow. A slower court means serves don’t have as much impact, drop shots die and the player needs to be able to do a lot more with the ball.
As the balls and courts are slower, players can get to more balls, which means it takes more shots to win a point.
2. Grass Courts at Wimbledon
The grass at Wimbledon is a softer surface than clay, meaning balls bounce lower. Grass is renowned for typically being the fastest surface.
In the late 90s Wimbledon courts were very fast but now the balls and grass are slower than they were, so points are longer, which means baseline players are doing well more often.
It’s also important to note though that there is a big difference between the courts at Wimbledon. The newer courts are harder and faster. I once played on the newer courts and served 33 aces… my next match was on the older courts, and couldn’t get nearly the same purchase of the court – hence, I didn’t serve as many aces.
The players know that the courts are different and experience really counts; once you’ve played there you know how to rethink your game depending which court you’ll be playing on.
3. Hard Courts at the US Open and Australian Open
On the hard courts at the US Open the ball bounces higher and the court is quicker. The courts at the Australian Open are fairly slow in comparison to the US Open.
What does it take for a player to adjust to the different surfaces as the tennis year progresses, particularly from hard court to clay?
As a kid growing up you want to develop a game that has the ability to work on all surfaces. To be successful you need to be a great athlete, a great mover and a great competitor.
Players should also become a student of the game, learn how to understand your opponent, the different court surfaces and your own strengths and weaknesses. And you’ve got to love the battle!
Once you get to the tour you can continue to improve but it’s hard to reinvent the wheel and make major changes to your game.
For the grand slams, it’s all about getting your body and game style ready in the lead up to the events. Figure out how long you have to get ready and what the priorities are.
From a physical perspective for example, points are longer at the French Open so you might increase your cardio training. The transition from French Open to Wimbledon is really quick, so you could adjust your movement patterns to allow for the balls bouncing lower.
How difficult is it to adjust to the different grand slam tournaments?
To be a great grand slam player you need to be smart, well organised and plan the transition. And experience is massive!
Tennis is an extraordinarily hard game because there is so much complexity to it and your opponent has so much to do with the final result. You can do everything correctly but if you’re playing someone who is playing their 10 out of 10 game, for most players you just can’t match them if you’re playing your 8 out of 10 game.
If you’re not ready in body and mind then it’s hard to expect the best from yourself.
All that aside, when it comes down to it adjusting to the different slams is part of what tennis players need to know how to do.
Prepare as much as you can but once you’re there, let the preparation pay off and just do what you need to do.
How much impact do other factors have on a player’s ability to play well at grand slam tournaments?
Your shoes are really important. For hard courts you have a swivel on the sole, clay court shoes have a herringbone for more grip and grass court shoes have dimples.
Each tournament also has a different feel and that can impact on a player’s success.
The Australian Open is really relaxed and you can get back to your hotel in about 10 minutes. Wimbledon has a different feel again because everyone stays at Wimbledon village in houses. And although being in for Paris Roland Garros is really full on, the US Open can be a mad house by comparison; it can take either 20 minutes or 1.5 hours to get to the courts.
Plus at the slams there is a lot of commotion going on around you and that can be distracting, especially if you’re new to it. Roger Federer makes it look so easy but for up and coming players, if you want to win, the best approach is get in, do your work and then get out.
When you’re not one of the top players, lets face it, you lose a lot of matches during the year, so resilience is a huge factor and it’s easy to fall flat if you don’t have the right people around you.
Melinda Samson is attending Roland Garros and will be writing updates on Australian players through their trek of the tennis world’s second slam. She also manages the website Grand Slam Gal and is attempting to do the fan version of a tennis grand slam in 2012. Follow her on Twitter for further live updates @GrandSlamGal.