Home to the most prestigious tournament in the world, all eyes are currently on the UK for the grass court swing but evidence suggests clay court tennis is growing in Britain.
World No.3 Andy Murray recently enjoyed his best season on clay after winning titles in Munich and Madrid and reaching the semi-finals at Roland Garros.
The Scot is no stranger to the surface having moved to the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona aged 15. He had never won a title on the clay before triumphing in Munich, but after beating both Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer on the terre battue for the first time, was considered a genuine contender at the French Open before falling in five sets to Novak Djokovic.
“I feel like I have a better understanding of how I need to play on this surface,” Murray said in Paris.
He is not alone in finding his feet on the clay. While the number of grass courts in the UK is in decline, there are more artificial clay courts in the UK. It is a surface well suited to the British climate. It is possible to play on the clay in light rain, and unlike hard court surfaces, play can be resumed on porous artifical clay courts in a matter of minutes after a rain shower.
Patrick Mouratoglou, coach of world No.1 Serena Williams and founder of the Patrick Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in France, says clay courts are great for developing more rounded players.
“I believe that clay courts are the best surface on which to learn for the same reason that I advocate practising outdoors,” Mouratoglou told tennishead magazine. “It’s harder to hit a winning shot on clay. There are no easy winners. You have to learn to work the point. What you learn on clay will benefit you on other surfaces.”
As well as being of benefit for player development, clay courts have advantages for older players too; clay courts are gentler on the body and result in fewer injuries. Surbiton Rackets and Fitness Club installed three floodlit synthetic clay courts in 2012, replacing three macadam courts.
“About three years ago we put in some synthetic clay,” said director Roy Staniland. “Adult members love it because it is a soft surface underneath their joints. The kids love it because they can slide and train on it.”
The courts at Surbiton were installed by Chiltern Sports Contractors Limited, a specialist construction company based in Buckinghamshire. The company has seen an increase in demand for artificial clay courts over recent years.
“Demand for artificial clay has risen steadily over the years,” says managing director Andy Burrell. “From our company’s perspective it reached an all time high last year with approximately 25% of the synthetic courts installed being clay.”
While Chiltern Sports has installed artificial clay for private clients, all artificial clay courts installed at tennis clubs have replaced another surface.
“Every single artificial clay court we have installed has been to replace either natural grass, synthetic grass, acrylic or macadam,” he said. “Artificial clay is always popular with club members.
“At Great Missenden (right) we replaced three grass courts in 2013 and the synthetic clay courts have become the most popular and most-used courts with year-round play. In September 2012 we replaced three synthetic grass courts at St. Georges Hill.”
An artifical clay court is a synthetic sports carpet and a layer of sand which replicates the playing surface of real clay courts. The terracotta colouring makes the surface look identical to traditional clay. Synthetic clay offers a comfortable joint-friendly and slower playing surface but is much easier to maintain than natural clay.
“I believe it’s on the increase, particularly amongst good level club players because it is a performance surface,” Burrell said. “It can be played on all year round and maintenance costs are lower.”
If Andy Murray’s recent success on the red stuff has inspired people to get out and play, it seems the UK has woken up to the benefits of this durable surface for players of every age and ability.