A clay court is one of many different types of tennis court. Clay courts are made of crushed shale, stone or brick. The French Open uses clay courts, making it unique among the Grand Slam tournaments. Clay courts are more common in Continental Europe and Latin America than in the United States, Canada or Britain. Two types exist: red clay, the more common variety, and green clay, also known as "rubico", which is a harder surface. Although less expensive to construct than other types of tennis courts, the maintenance costs of clay are high as the surface must be rolled to preserve flatness. The water content must also be balanced; green courts are often sloped in order to allow water run-off.
Clay courts are considered "slow", because the balls bounce relatively high and more slowly, making it more difficult for a player to deliver an unreturnable shot. Points are usually longer as there are fewer winners. Therefore, clay courts heavily favor baseliners who are consistent and have a strong defensive game, which has allowed players such as Rafael Nadal, Björn Borg, Chris Evert, and Justine Henin to find success at the French Open.
Clay court players use topspins to throw off their opponents. Movement on gravel courts is very different from movement on any other surface. Playing on clay often involves the ability to slide into the ball during the stroke, as opposed to running and stopping like on a hard or grass court. Players who excel on clay courts but struggle to replicate the same form on fast courts are known as clay-court specialists.
Clay courts are unique in that the ball bounce leaves an impression in the ground, which can help determine whether a shot was in or out. Critics of red clay courts point to the constant need to wet them down, problems renewing the surface if it dries out, and the damage caused to clothing and footwear through stains. All clay courts, not just red clay, tend to cause a build-up of clay on the bottom of the shoes of the players, needing constant removal.
Almost all red "clay" courts are made not of natural clay but of crushed brick that is packed to make the court. The crushed brick is then covered with a topping of loose crushed particles. This type of surface does not absorb water easily and is the most common in Europe and Latin America. The French Open is played on a red clay court at Stade Roland Garros. True natural clay courts are rare because they take two to three days to dry. A good example of natural red clay can be seen at the Frick Park Clay Courts in Pittsburgh, a public facility of six red clay courts that has been in continual use since 1930.
A crushed brick surface was introduced by a British firm, En Tout Cas, in 1909, to address the drainage problem of the clay surface. En tout cas, also known as "fast-dry", or "continental clay", court surfaces spread through Europe in the 1920s. An en tout cas court plays similarly to natural clay despite its considerably more granular appearance. The crushed brick surface allowed more water to run through the surface of the court drying the surface more quickly after a rain. In France, Spain and Italy "fast-dry" surfaces were generally shallower, consisting of powdered brick or red sand, making these courts appear more like natural clay surfaces. In the 1930s, En-Tout-Cas courts were used for the Davis Cup and the French Open. In Victoria, Australia, clay-type courts are predominantly En Tout Cas.
Green clay, also called "Har-Tru" or "rubico", is similar to red clay, but is made from crushed basalt rather than brick, making the surface slightly harder and faster. Green clay is packed to make the subsurface. It is then covered with a topping. These clay courts can be found in all 50 of the United States but are located primarily in the Eastern and Southern states.
There is one WTA tournament played on green Har-Tru clay courts in 2015: the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina. Previously, there was also the MPS Group Championships in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, but that tournament ended in 2010.
Currently, the most successful male player on clay is Rafael Nadal, winner of nine French Open men's singles titles. Since his debut in 2005, he has only ever lost twice at the tournament – in 2009, when he was beaten by Swedish player Robin Söderling in the fourth round in four sets and in 2015 against Novak Djokovic in the quarter finals. Nadal holds the record for the longest winning streak by any male player on a single surface in the Open era: 81 clay court wins between April 2005 and May 2007. (Note: in the pre-open era Tony Wilding was unbeaten on clay from May 1910 to June 1914, 36 clay court tournaments, so his total is likely to be much higher than Nadal's).
The most successful female player on clay currently is Serena Williams, who won the French Open thrice, in 2002, 2013 and 2015. In 2013, Williams went undefeated throughout the entire clay court season, winning five titles on the surface.
Other successful clay court players include Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Justine Henin, Guillermo Vilas, Björn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, and Gustavo Kuerten.
Justine Henin and Monica Seles both hold the record for the number of consecutive French Open titles won at 3 (1990-1992 for Seles and 2005-2007 for Henin), although Seles was prevented from participating in the 1993 French Open due to her stabbing incident and Henin did not participate in the 2008 French Open due to her sudden retirement mere weeks before the tournament.
Chris Evert holds the record for longest winning streak on clay for either gender in the Open era: from August 1973 to May 12, 1979, she won 125 consecutive clay court matches. During this time Evert skipped 3 French Opens 76-78, to participate in World Team Tennis. (Note: in the pre-open era, between 1919 and 1926, Suzanne Lenglen played about 250 singles matches on clay, winning all of them in straight sets)
Guillermo Vilas holds the record for most titles won on clay in the Open era, with 49 trophies, only one French Open. Jaroslav Drobný won at least 93 Clay court titles in the pre-open era. Tony Wilding also was a prolific winner on Clay. He won 77 clay titles.
Due in part to advances in racquet technology, today's clay-court specialists are also known for employing long, winding groundstrokes that generate heavy topspin, strokes which are less effective when the surface is faster and the balls don't bounce as high. Clay-court specialists tend to slide more effectively on clay than other players. Many of them are also very adept at hitting the drop shot, which can be effective because rallies on clay courts often leave players pushed far beyond the baseline. Additionally, the slow, long rallies require a great degree of mental focus and physical stamina from the players.
The definition of "clay-court specialist" has varied, with some placing players such as Thomas Muster, Sergi Bruguera, Gustavo Kuerten, and Juan Carlos Ferrero in that category, even though these players have won tournaments (including Masters Series events) on other surfaces. However, since these players won major titles only at the French Open, they are sometimes labeled as such. Other players, such as Sergi Bruguera, Albert Costa and Gastón Gaudio were French Open champions who won all or very nearly all of their career titles on clay. Among female players, there have been very few whose best results were confined exclusively to clay. Virginia Ruzici, Anastasia Myskina, Iva Majoli, Sue Barker, Ana Ivanovic and Francesca Schiavone are the only female players to have won major titles at only the French Open since the beginning of the tennis open era in 1968. Ivanovic had previously lost to Maria Sharapova in the final of the 2008 Australian Open, which employs plexicushion, before going on to win the French Open in that same year.
In recent years clay courters have attempted to play better on other surfaces with some success. Ferrero reached the US Open Final in 2003, the same year he won the French Open, and has also won hardcourt tournaments. Nadal was considered a clay court specialist until he reached five Wimbledon finals on grass, won the Australian Open on hardcourt in 2009, won the Olympic singles gold medal on hardcourt in 2008, completed his career Grand Slam at the 2010 US Open, and won nine Masters titles on hardcourts, in addition to his record-breaking nine French Open titles, winning streak of 81 consecutive matches on clay, and undefeated record on hard courts in 2013 until the China Open late in the year. Sara Errani, who made her only Grand Slam singles final appearance to date at the 2012 French Open, where she was defeated by Maria Sharapova, also reached the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the Australian and US Opens respectively in the same year.
Professional tournaments played on clay
The professional clay court season comprises many more tournaments than the brief grass court season, but is still shorter than the hard court seasons. There are three distinct clay court seasons during the year.
The first is the winter clay swing that occurs primarily in February after the Australian Open and before the Indian Wells Masters. It is played exclusively in the South American countries of Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador. The ATP has four tournaments in this swing, while the WTA only has one - the combined ATP/WTA tournament in Rio de Janeiro.
The second is the long spring clay season that starts in the Americas before moving to mainland Europe and Morocco leading up to the French Open. It is usually played over two months in April and May after the Miami Masters concludes. Unlike the other two clay seasons, for the most part, this swing does not share the majority of its time with simultaneous hard court tournaments.
The third is the brief summer clay season that takes place after Wimbledon. It is entirely in Europe, and usually takes place in July. Near the end of the swing, it competes with the beginning of the US Open Series.
Winter clay season
|Week 1||Ecuador Open (Quito, Ecuador)||none|
|Week 2||Brasil Open (São Paulo, Brazil)||none|
|Week 3||Rio Open (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)|
|Week 4||ATP Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, Argentina)||none|
Spring clay season
|Week 1||Grand Prix Hassan II (Casablanca, Morocco)
U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships (Houston, United States)
|Family Circle Cup (Charleston, United States)|
|Week 2||Monte-Carlo Masters (Monte Carlo, Monaco)||Copa Colsanitas (Bogotá, Colombia)|
|Week 3||Barcelona Open (Barcelona, Spain)
BRD Năstase Țiriac Trophy (Bucharest, Romania)
|Women's Stuttgart Open (Stuttgart, Germany)|
|Week 4||Bavarian International Tennis Championships (Munich, Germany)
Estoril Open (Estoril, Portugal)
Istanbul Open (Istanbul, Turkey)
|Marrakech Grand Prix (Marrakesh, Morocco)
Sparta Prague Open (Prague, Czech Republic)
|Week 5||Madrid Open (Madrid, Spain)|
|Week 6||Italian Open (Rome, Italy)|
|Week 7||Geneva Open (Geneva, Switzerland)
Open de Nice Côte d'Azur (Nice, France)
|Internationaux de Strasbourg (Strasbourg, France)
Nuremberg Cup (Nuremberg, Germany)
|Week 8||French Open (Paris, France)|
Summer clay season
|Week 1||none||BRD Bucharest Open (Bucharest, Romania)
Swedish Open (Båstad, Sweden)
|Week 2||Swedish Open (Båstad, Sweden)
Croatia Open (Umag, Croatia)
|Gastein Ladies (Bad Gastein, Austria|
|Week 3||German Open Tennis Championships (Hamburg, Germany)
Swiss Open (Gstaad, Switzerland)
|Week 4||Austrian Open Kitzbühel (Kitzbühel, Austria)||none|
- "Clay Courts: What Are They Anyway?". Xsports. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
- "Frick Park Clay Court Tennis Club". Retrieved 2011-01-18.
- http://www.en-tout-cas.co.uk/ En-Tout-Cas Sports Surfaces home page
- http://www.xsports.com/clay.html Clay Courts: What Are They Anyway? by Andrew R. Lavallee, ASLA
- http://www.tennis.com.au/clubs/courts-surrounds/surfaces/clay Clay courts in Australia. 2013 Tennis Australia web site
- Serena Williams confirms greatness with French Open win, The Roar, 10 June 2013
- Tennis: Serena Williams racks up 51st win to take Swedish Open title, ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), 22 July 2013
- Ford, Bonnie D (2008-06-27). "Nadal the lead warrior in Spanish surge on grass". EPSN.com. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
- "Ferrero shatters Agassi hopes". BBC. 2008-06-27. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
- "Ferrero claims Madrid title". BBC. 2002-10-19. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
- US Open: Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic in four-set final to win his second Open title, ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), 10 September 2013
- Maria Sharapova wins French Open to complete career grand slam, The Observer, 10 June 2012
- US Open: Women's semi-finals as they happened, BBC Sport, 12 September 2012