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By Gabe Jaramillo | Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rafael Nadal

The capacity to stop and recover with power is a key to Rafael Nadal's clay-court success.

Photo credit: Roland Garros/FFT

Roland Garros approaches reminding us that even elite players can find red clay a shifting surface that’s challenging to solve.

The foundation for clay-court success is smooth movement and quick recovery.

More: No Roland Garros Wild Card For Sharapova

As a long-time coach, I’ve worked with several players who have gone on to raise Roland Garros title trophies—Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce and Iva Majoli—and through these experiences I’ve learned some fundamental truths about the keys to crafting clay-court success.

In this article, we discuss some of the crucial questions to winning on clay as well as answers that will hopefully help you improve your game on the terre battue and gain a greater understanding of why players like nine-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal are so proficient on clay.

Why are some top players ineffective playing on clay?

Technique and movement go together, step by step. Watch carefully and you’ll see players that move poorly on clay are more prone to their strokes falling apart—even during preparation. Andy Roddick owned a massive serve and a big forehand, but his backhand was poor. He tried to cover that wing by hitting forehands, which is easier to do on hard court than on clay. On clay, Roddick’s poor court positioning cost him.

Players who have stroke weaknesses are easily exploited on clay. For example, Roddick not only had a poor backhand, but his recovery on the backhand side was inefficient.

Most people talk about the importance of the first step to recover. But they don´t understand that the absolute most vital factor is the capacity to stop and recover with power—this is even more crucial while playing on clay.

Players must learn at an early age how to stop efficiently. Roddick was not slow, but he was extremely inefficient in terms of stopping his movement during the recovery process, particularly on the backhand side, which forced him into defensive positions.

Rafael Nadal can run around his backhand effectively because he moves extremely well and his recovery step is exceptional.

I attribute that full athletic recovery to how well Nadal uses the court on his advantage by stopping strong, sliding, staying low, employing a wide base, using his strong upper body to maintain his balance and having the power to push hard to recover and get ready for the next shot.

The primary reason players struggle on clay is due to poor movement—not because they are not fast—but because they can´t stop efficiently to recover quickly.

How do you coach players who don’t like playing on clay?

Today the ATP has 22 outdoor hard-court tournaments and 21 outdoor clay-court tournaments and most of the 16 indoor tournaments are played on hard court. On the junior circuit, there is a balance between clay and hard-court events, so it is important for the players at an early age to play and gain proficiency on both surfaces.

When I started working with Kei Nishikori, he was 13 years old and coming from playing only in Japan where the hard-court surfaces are among the fastest courts on the planet. For the first two years, from the ages of 13 to 15, I had Kei practice 90 percent of the time on American Har-Tru clay or what people commonly call green clay.

The reason was simple: For a player to succeed in today’s tennis they must be proficient in all surfaces. Technically and tactically, Kei used to hit very flat with little topspin, making many errors.

Requiring Kei to play on clay and using barriers—making sure he had to hit the ball over the barrier—created not a high ball, but a heavy ball giving him more margin of error while pushing the opponent backward because of the heaviness of his ball.

The movement on clay is very precise, the technique is vital, so Nishikori practiced every other day how to move with the proper technique.

Starting by learning how to slide properly, placing the emphasis on how to stop using the inside leg and foot as an anchor, where the ankle has to rotate inwards, with flexibility. The emphasis was on having the entire side of the shoe and his socks full of clay to make sure he was getting very low and with wide base to control the upper body. That inside foot was the anchor, he had to keep it touching the ground so he could use the inside leg to recover quickly and with enough power to maximize the first recovery step. The key to moving on clay is to stop with balance and to recover with power.

The more the players practice technique and movement on clay the more comfortable they become. We have seen this with Nishikori, who is a two-time Barcelona champion and a former Madrid Open finalist. The physical conditioning program should also be tennis specific on that surface.

Today, players move very well on every surface, their movement technique is a clay-court mentality. Many top players today slide on hard courts to hit a wide ball whereas in the 1990s quick players like Michael Chang used the muggle step to hit that shot. When the speed of the sport changes, techniques must change to adapt.

How do I become a successful clay-court player?

Players must play on every surface to grow into champions and stars. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were more surface specialists. Today, elite players must excel on all surfaces.

I am a developmental coach. That means that I start working with the students an early age, usually girls at nine years of age and boys at 12 or 13 years of age maximum. I believe in working with talented players with high volume and with a very clear plan that I put on writing. I call it periodization plan.

The plan begins projecting the future with the players at 18 years of age either playing in the main draw of a Grand Slam. Then from that point I walk backwards one year at the time, writing specific goals, including tournament results because results don´t lie and they show us the way: What are we doing right and what areas do we need to improve?

Having a clear plan in writing to build a player is as essential as having a blue-print to build a house.

The ITF junior calendar makes the clay circuit in South America very important. All juniors know from an early age that they have to play well on clay. All the players that I have coached followed the same road except for Monica Seles, who was a genius and without a doubt the most talented player I ever coached.

The most important part of their work out since they were very young was to play on clay as much as possible. Strokes, drills, points and matches on clay is vital. Even more importantly is the physical conditioning and movement. Players who are not used to moving on clay we start slowly teaching them first to stop by sliding. I tell the players to take advantage of the surface by sliding and recovering without taking an extra step.

The best exercise for this is throwing balls side to side. The ball that the coach tosses has to pass between the player’s legs—only open stances are allowed—and we use from eight to twelve balls in this drill. We also do drills where the player has recover short and deep balls, again the emphasis is on stopping, using the sliding technique and the first step of the recovery.

Before Mary Pierce won Roland Garros, her main drilling was done on Har-Tru, the American green clay. Mary would do two-and-one drills where she was hitting against two boys and the boys couldn't miss a ball.

In the first drill, Mary hit cross court and the boys hit down the line. She hit for three minutes without stopping, then she took a one- minute rest and did it again. Mary did six sets of this drill and after finishing the sixth set she would take a five-minute break before the second drill. The second drill featured the same time and same intervals, only this time Mary would hit down the line and the boys would hit cross court.

Repeating this drill, Mary Pierce was a finely-tuned machine by the time she reached Roland Garros. In fact, Pierce swept both the singles and doubles championships, partnering Martina Hingis, at the 2000 French Open.

During my first year working with Iva Majoli, we traveled to the Orange Bowl, which was a clay-court tournament that that time. Iva was beaten very badly in the early rounds. I remember after the match everybody telling me that I had lost my eye, in their view she could not beat her way out of a paper bag, which meant she was a pusher.

When we returned to the Academy, I let her know that pushers did not go anywhere, especially on clay, and that if she wanted to be a champion she had to hit the ball with no fear. Every day she worked on high volleys and putting away forehands.

By the time Iva won the 1997 French Open she was one of the most aggressive players on tour.

Can a player use the same game style on any surface?

Since 2002, the speed of the hard courts has been reduced significantly, while the speed of some clay courts has increased. Changes in playing surfaces have changed how the game is played and these changes have made the game more competitive.

In the past, there were aggressive serve-and-volley players, like Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and John McEnroe and defensive players like Bjorn Borg, Sergi Bruguera and Guillermo Vilas.

Today most players are aggressive baseliners trying to force the opponent to hit a short ball, either inside the baseline or around the service line and from there they attack that ball. Top players use the forehand as a weapon and they hit the ball with so much power that most the time that ball does not come back.

In the 1980s, some players used continental and eastern forehand grips and many also had one handed backhands. That is not the case today. Players prefer semi western forehand grips and two handed backhands, making the passing shots more accurate and with more variety. The speed of the surfaces and the grips have changed the game today.

I am sure that if Agassi would have competed today with these slower surfaces he would have broken every record in existence.

Players can´t change their style of play to accommodate the surface. In 2008, I traveled with Kei Nishikori to New Delhi for his Davis Cup debut against India. The surface was grass, I told him to play his style: aggressive baseline tennis. Instead he listened to his teammate and decide to slice and to keep the ball low and to attack the net as much as possible. That is not Kei’s game and he lost to Rohan Bopanna. But he was young and learned a great lesson that has helped him the rest of his career: He has to stick to his style of play no matter the surface.

Because of the homogenization of court surfaces the players can use their power baseline game to compete at every Grand Slam and they don´t have to make extreme changes or adjustments depending on the surface. Again, the big difference is movement and players have to be able to compete in all surfaces. The key is to start early and committing to volume of work on clay is sacred.

What are the most important keys to success on clay courts?

In April 1991, I spoke at a coaching symposium in Spain. My talk was about how to play modern tennis, stay on top of the baseline, take time away from the opponent and play an aggressive baseline game.

My talk was immediately followed by Pato Alvarez, who at that at time was the king of tennis in Spain. Pato launched his presentation saying that Gabe Jaramillo was very young, talented coach but that I did not know about clay-court tennis, that especially on clay the players had to move back and that defense was more important that offense.

After his speech, people looked at me as young but inexperienced coach.

Only a month later at the French Open, Jim Courier beat Andre Agassi in the finals and Monica Seles won the women’s title.

All of them played modern tennis, close to the base line, attacking, taking the ball up in the air with swinging volleys and putting every short ball away.

After those results then people understood that the future of tennis had arrived.

In 1988 Agassi was playing the French Open, we didn’t know how popular he was, while he was walking toward the court to play his first-round match, he was swarmed by many loving female fans. They were pulling his shirt, his hair, all of them wanted to touch him, just to be closed to him.

Agassi was stunned by all these people and he got afraid, he was not expecting it. We had to run back to the locker room to change clothing and to come down. From that day forward every time he walked to the court he had police protection. He was the first player to have an entourage of security to take him to his court.

In 1978, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas engaged in the longest rally in the history of the game, which spanned 86 strokes. That does not happen in today's game.

Players used to hit many cross court to cross court until one of them hit a shorter ball and only then the opponent would change direction. In today’s game is difficult to see an exchange cross court to cross court for more than three or four balls as players today change direction quickly.

For one thing, the clay courts are faster but the players are a lot more aggressive, they hit the ball earlier, with heavy topspin and with a lot more power. The game was very linear, even in the 1990s Lendl had the most powerful forehand in the game. If we compare that stroke to Djokovic’s forehand is not even a close similarity. Modern players prepare, load and use the elastic energy to develop devastating strokes. It is about power. And to be able to hit with power they most move extremely well.

The game has evolved even more in the past five years. Statistics show at the 2016 US Open, the average strokes hit in a men’s point was four. The ability to shorten rallies means the first two shots the players hits are vital.

For example, the serve and his first shot after the serve will often dictate if a player wins or loses the point. Equally, the same is true for the returning player: He most hit an aggressive return and that next shot after the return will often determine if he wins or loses the point. In today's game is not good enough to put the ball back in play, players have to dictate early and finish the point at the first chance.

Before, the servers had the advantage. Today the best players in the world are the good returners, statistically male players only win 48 percent of the time when they serve their second serve, while women players average about 42 percent.

At the same time the best players of today are the best defensive players—not because they push—but because they give the opponents no angles to attack, they move extremely well and they attack and defend at the same time by taking the space away. The first four shots will often determine the outcome of the point in today’s tennis.

Gabe Jaramillo, who formerly served as tennis director of the IMG-Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, operates his own Academy in Florida at the Club Med Sandpiper. Gabe has coached eight world No. 1 players and 27 Top 10 players. When he’s not coaching, Gabe writes for Tennis Now, Smash Magazine in Japan, Net 7 in Argentina, Tenisbrasil, Racquettech in Germany and is a contributor for the BBC World News radio. For more on Gabe and his Academy please visit Gabe and  tennis coaching


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