2015 is off to a good start with me getting 4 tough clay court matches under my belt here in Florida. These are my first weeks competing in pro events on clay in well over 4 years so there are lots of things to remember, figure out, get wrong and re-learn. This has been genuinely enjoyable, as the different elements and emotions of clay court tennis have come flooding back to me.
Having not grown up on clay from a young age it is my weakest surface, which I am happy to admit, however that doesn’t mean I am not any good on the stuff! I have won top junior events and a 25K on red clay so I’m no chump… I just haven’t competed on it as much as faster surfaces. There are strengths in my game that work really well on clay, and some that need to be adapted i.e. My heavy lefty forehand is a great base shot but I can’t finish the points as quickly as I am used to so patience and selecting the right ball to attack is key.
In my first session on this surface I have 2 fundamentals to get right… movement and shape of shot. Moving on a clay court is far more tiring on your legs as the ground is moving beneath your feet as you run, making changing direction and the first powerful step more difficult. Sliding requires a fair bit of strength, which is repeated and repeated as the points are longer and wider. My quads, hips, hamstrings and IT bands all take a hammering on the first day but you adapt quickly, much like the soreness in your glutes after your first session on grass, as you have to be so much lower than all other surfaces. I try to do as much sliding as possible, which is always difficult at first, but by the end of the 2nd session I am feeling a lot more comfortable and relaxed. It is important to get regular Physio treatment when you change surfaces as you use your muscles in a different way, which can result in them becoming tight and sore.
The average shot height over the net is higher on clay, with an aim to keep the opponent pinned back and contacting the ball above shoulder height, which is a tough shot to hit from behind the baseline. If your shot has dropped short and they are inside the baseline hitting above shoulder height, get your running shoes on to try and get back in the point!
Through my matches last week I was still re learning my own personal clay court game and I am so pleased with my progress. My match fitness is improving rapidly, and I was able to play and win 2 matches in one day playing for over 5 hours against tough opponents. I couldn’t have done that 3 months ago, and I can feel myself getting stronger and stronger physically and mentally every day. Playing Kasatkina in the last round of qualifying was a really good test of where I am at. She won Roland Garros juniors last year and really knows her way around a clay court. I pushed her close I the first set but then she ran away with it and I found it difficult to push through the fatigue of 5 hours the day before. I know this won’t be a problem for me in the future but some things frustratingly take time to improve as much as I want them to.
The qualifying in these tournaments is very strong due to the limited events available to play at this time of year so every match is fiercely competitive and a place in the main draw is very much earnt. It is no surprise that last week 4 of the quarter finalists came through qualifying. One thing you might find amusing is that for the first round of qualifying, we do our own coin toss and call our own lines. A lot of the older players have had the assistance of umpires since junior tennis and it is a strange sensation to wind the clock back and feel like you are playing an U12 club match! Everyone gets on with it ok as there is no other option, but it is funny to see a girl ranked 270 beasting the ball around at a very high intense level against a girl ranked 350, but having to stop to have a discussion because they disagree on the score!