Whilst all tennis courts will always have the same dimensions, a net and white lines, the surface of a court can vary massively.
Now you may be thinking, how much difference can the surface I play on actually make? It’s still a tennis court after all…
Well, we are here to explain the key differences of different court surfaces and how you can optimise your game to play your best tennis on each court type!
When tennis was first invented, it was primarily played as Real Tennis in Britain and France on indoor wooden courts.
The first grass courts as we know them today were introduced in the 1700s, and the dimensions and design of the tennis court has not changed much since!
Outdoor tennis courts were primarily played on grass all the way up until the 1970s, with 3 of the 4 grand slams being played on the surface.
Of course, the French open has historically been played on clay, so needless to say, most tournaments were on grass courts back then!
Nowadays there are a range of surfaces available, all with slight nuances. So, it is important to know your court surfaces and have the best game plan to win on each one!
What are the modern surfaces?
Although you will be able to find a wide array of different court surfaces when visiting different clubs, tournaments and even countries, there are 4 distinct surface categories in general terms.
These are grass, clay, hard courts and carpet. You may be thinking, where does my local cracked, weathered tarmac court fit into this?
Well hard courts have become very popular in public parks and smaller tennis clubs around the world due to their superior value for money and relative ease to maintain.
Where a grass court or clay court typically can only be used at certain times of the year, a hard or well maintained carpet court can be used all year round.
Now we will break down the different court surfaces in a bit more detail so you can understand the characteristics of each one specifically.
Grass courts have become the rarest and most sought after of all the tennis surfaces in recent years.
They must be meticulously maintained and cannot be used in the rain, so to avoid serious damage to the playing surface.
They also take longer to try out than any other surface.
Whereas a hard, clay or carpet court would have lines robustly painted or even nailed in to the ground, the lines on a grass court are more susceptible to fading or damage as the court gets churned up with use, particularly around the baseline.
Grass courts tend to have very hard packed soil, which has to be evenly pressed with a lawn roller to give a consistent bounce.
This, coupled with the finely mowed grass gives the grass court the fastest and lowest bounce of all modern surfaces.
The consistency of the bounce does tend to depend on the health of the grass however, so a poorly maintained grass court can actually produce the most ‘bad’ bounces of any court surface.
Unsurprisingly, grass courts are therefore the most expensive and laboursome to maintain, which is one of the main reasons why there are so few grass courts in local clubs these days.
There tends not to be much variety with the actual type of grass court, they really differ in terms of quality on the whole.
A grass court with densely packed soil, a dead even surface, finely cut grass and well watered will give the best results, due to the health and consistency of the grass itself.
A clay court is traditionally made from red brick, ground finely into a powder (giving the traditional red colour to the surface).
The can in fact be made using crushed stone or shale too, which will result in a more grey colour.
A clay court comprises a hard court, with a top surface layer of compressed or rolled brick, which must maintain a level of flatness to allow for a consistent bounce.
Although clay courts are relatively inexpensive to construct, they must be maintained diligently to keep the top surface layer coating and water content consistent.
If this is not done properly, clumps of clay may form, making it dangerous for players to slide and could cause injury.
Generally speaking, European and South American clay courts tend to be made from ‘red’ clay, whereas North American clay courts tend to be grey or green in colour.
Artificial clay courts have also become very popular, due to their relative ease to maintain compared to true clay courts.
This synthetic surface tends to have a lower bounce than a traditional clay court and, if well maintained, more traction underfoot when sliding.
Clay courts always need to be brushed or swept after use, including the lines to maintain their consistent bounce and to avoid clumping of clay in certain areas.
These darker coloured courts tend to have more a compacted top layer, owing to a shorter slide and lower bounce than a traditional red clay court.
They are also almost always sloped at the court edges to allow water to run off properly.
Generally, clay courts tend to have wider and longer run offs surrounding the court than grass, hard or carpet courts, as players tend to slide around in extended rallies on this surface, due to the higher bounce and reduced ball speed.
By far the most popular tennis court surface today, hard courts are quite versatile in their make up and tend to see the most customisation compared to other surfaces.
Generally made of a uniform surface such as concrete and layered with acrylic to regulate the bounce, hard courts tend to be slower than grass but faster than clay courts.
However, the speed of a hard court can vary greatly depending on the amount of sand embedded into the paint.
The more course the paint, the rougher the surface and therefore the slower and higher the ball will bounce off of it.
In terms of maintenance, hard courts require by far the least of all the surfaces.
Generally, they may need to be resurfaced and have lines repainted once per year, but the surface itself requires very little to keep it playable all year round.
The variations of hard courts include concrete, acrylic and asphalt.
Carpet courts tend to come in the form of a removable cover that can be placed over a hard court.
They tend to be used primarily indoors and are typically a rubber backed, smooth artificial carpet surface. These courts are more commonly used indoors.
This not only makes the bounce very consistent, but also makes this surface very easy on your joints!
Carpet courts tend to generate a low and fast bounce, due to the smooth court surface.
Other artificial surfaces include artificial grass or astro turf, which are more typically used outdoors and covered in sand to make the surface slower and more playable.
Other Court Surfaces
Whilst the vast majority of courts are made up of the above categories, historically tennis courts have also been made out of polished wood, tiles and canvas.
How can I adapt my game to suit each surface?
The main factors that differentiate the court surfaces are the bounce, court speed and underfoot traction.
These create vastly different playing conditions, effective tactics and even equipment you should use on each individual surface.
We will therefore break down the most effective playing styles for each surface, along with tips on how to optimise your game.
If you are looking for an all in one package for getting the most out of your tennis game by improving your movement, be sure to check out The Tennis Bros “On Your Toes” – The Footwork Guide.
Playing on Grass
Since grass produces such a low bounce and is the quickest playing surface, staying low is especially important.
Getting low to produce your shots will help you generate more power and topspin, due to the fact it is easier to get under the ball.
It is also worth noting that grass courts are the most likely to become slippery, in terms of having an uncontrolled slide (rather than the sort of controlled slide you may use to reach a ball on clay or an appropriate hard court).
Therefore, having a strong core and being sure of your footing is a key part of being an effective grass court player.
In terms of tactics, the slice is a very effective shot on grass.
This is because the fast surface and low bounce accentuates the backspin, making a purposeful slice a strong weapon on grass.
Use a short slice around the service line to draw your opponent into the court, or chip and charge after a return of serve to catch your opponent off guard and you’ll be well on your way to mastering the grass court game!
Hitting flatter and lower over the net is also recommended on grass.
Serve and volleying is also especially effective on grass, due to the extra speed players can generate on serve.
Therefore any tactic that can rush your opponent and take their time away will be helped by the low bounce and fast paced courts.
If you struggle to confidently finish points off at the net and you feel this is letting your game down, check out The Tennis Bros The Art of Volleying course today!
Playing on Clay
Due to the high bouncing, slower nature of the clay surface, hitting a higher ball with more topspin will be made even more effective and push your opponent back.
This tactic has been used incredibly effectively by Rafa Nadal at the French Open, allowing him to hit with a lot of margin for error, whilst pushing his opponent back and dictating the play with his heavy topspin forehand.
Sliding is also very common on clay. Using a slide can help you get to short or wide balls quicker, whilst allowing you to push off and recover back into the point.
Since clay court points tend to last longer than any other surface, it is important to be physically conditioned and mentally prepared for a long match.
Baseline players tend to be best on clay, since the ball bounces higher and slower.
Therefore serve and volley players (or net rushers) can be passed with relative ease compared to other surfaces.
It is recommended therefore to use loopier shots and build points more gradually on clay if possible, as this can easily frustrate and grind down players that are not physically or mentally prepared for this challenge.
Another top tip for playing on clay is to use the drop shot.
Many players tend to sit back and grind from the baseline when on the dirt, and whilst this is generally a good tactic to get the most out of a clay court, using a drop shot can catch your opponent by surprise even more so on clay.
Since your opponent is likely to be a few meters further behind the baseline than on a grass court for example, they will have more ground to cover if you hit a well executed dropshot.
Moreover, due to the lower amount of underfoot traction on clay, you may find your opponent is struggling to push off to actually get to the drop shot, making this play even more effective.
Playing on Hard and Carpet Courts
Hard courts are generally the most all rounded of the surfaces.
Therefore, the all rounder that can hit big, defend well, hit their spots on their serve and finish points at the net will have the most success on hard courts.
However, this very much depends on the speed and playing type of the court.
If it is a smoother hard court or indoor carpet court, that is relatively fast and low bouncing, you would be encouraged to adopt more of a grass court like game style.
This means that bigger hitters that can also finish points at the net and find depth consistently with their groundstrokes (such as Novak Djokovic) would be optimised for playing on medium to fast hard courts and on carpet.
If you are playing on a higher bouncing, medium to slow hard court, it could be recommended to adopt a more clay courter like style to your game.
Although not as extreme as sliding and hitting predominantly higher groundstrokes, being patient and constructing points intelligently by pushing your opponent back and opening up the court will bring your more success on this particular surface.
Tips for Changing Surfaces
Important factors to consider when changing from surface to surface include physical and mental conditioning and footwear.
Being prepared to win or lose quick points and get over them quickly is important for faster surfaces like grass, carpet or a quicker hard court.
Sometimes points and games can quickly pass you by on these surfaces, so it is important to stay sharp and be prepared to take your opportunities when they are presented.
Serving well and being aggressive are especially important on these surfaces if you want to be successful!
On a slower surface such as clay or a slow hard court, you need to be mentally prepared for a long match.
Even in a tight scoreline, the points on these surfaces can be long, tiresome and frustrating.
So being prepared to dig deep, grind it out and be physically challenged will all set you up for success on a slower court surface.
Wearing the correct footwear for each surface is another key change that needs to be made to be effective.
Grass court shoes are unique and have small pimples on the soles of the shoes, helping with grip and stability
Hard court shoes tend to be more generic and most not marking, sturdy tennis shoes can be used to play on this surface.
Whereas on clay, as clay court shoe that helps you stay stable when sliding will help support your ankles and move safely.