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THE MYSTERY OF CLAY VS GRASS

Vic Braden

by Vic Braden
Contributing Tennis Writer

Tennis is entering the season where the conversation is about "clay vs. grass" as much as it is about potential champions. Strangely, there hasn't been much research on why particular players can only win on one surface or the other. However, nearly every tennis enthusiasts has a theory.

Svetlana Kuznetsova
Defending French Open Champion Rafael Nadal is 11-0 thus far on clay in '06 and 59-2 over the last two years.
Let's look at the demands of each surface. The players will tell you that the ball picks up clay particles at Roland Garros, home of the upcoming French Open, which makes for heavier balls, higher bounces and slower shots. That means one will normally have to stay on the court longer, play well behind the baseline and have great patience because it's simply too tough to hit outright winners. On grass, the ball skids, stays lower and faster. But one only has to make a comparison of the list of champions in the last twelve years of the French Open and Wimbledon to get a clearer picture. Not one male French Open champion, or runner-up, has appeared in the finals of Wimbledon during the same time frame. But, the male Wimbledon champions of the last twelve years have suffered the same fate; they haven't been able to reach the finals of the French Open.

When making the same comparison with female professionals in the last ten years, Steffi Graf, Venus and Serena Williams easily outscore the men. Steffi won the French Open in 1995. 1996 and 1999 and won Wimbledon in 1995 and 1996. Venus has won Wimbledon three times (2000, 2001 and 2005) but lost in the finals of the French Open to Serena in 2002. Serena won Wimbledon in 2002 and 2003 and won the French Open in 2002.

The prevailing theories are that on clay courts, it's tougher to get to the net because the players skid on the slippery courts making sudden directional changes very difficult. On grass, the big servers like the skidding ball which often produces weaker service returns and more opportunities to attack the net. As Jack Kramer once said, "On grass, the penalty is to even allow the ball to bounce after the service return".

There are a ton of theories, but one stands out for me. Number one, the motor learning researchers have shown that one normally performs best when he/she practices in the same manner they are expected to perform. So, if the theory is accurate, players who grow up on clay develop a mental and motor program for clay. The theory has some merit as in the last twelve years, all but one French Open winner spent most of their young life on clay courts. Andre Agassi was the exception. He is a hard hitter with a unique style of playing inside the baseline, and he won the French Open in 1999. Starting from 1994 to 2005, here are the male French Open champions: Thomas Muster (Austria), Yevgeny Kafelnekof (Russia), Gustavo Kuerten, (Brazil-3 titles), Carlos Moya (Spain), Andre Agassi (USA), Albert Costa (Spain), Juan Carlos Ferrero (Spain), Gaston Gaudio (Argentina) and Rafael Nadal (Spain).

In an amazing contrast, in the last twelve years, with only a couple of exceptions, Wimbledon has been won by players who enjoy the trip to the net behind a big serve. Pete Sampras captured six titles while Roger Federer owns three championships. The other three winners with one championship under their belt were Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivanisevic and surprisingly, Leyton Hewitt.

In twelve years at Wimbledon, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer own nine titles, but neither has won one French Open. Yet Bjorn Borg, who only went to the net to get the check, won five Wimbledon titles. That's one more than his four French Open titles. Is it the old argument of "Nature vs. Nurture"?

You figure it out

Vic Braden is a longtime sports science researcher, licensed psychologist and the founder of Vic Braden Sports Instruction and the Vic Braden Tennis College, which are held nationwide at premier resorts. He has produced sixteen instructional videos that incorporate his research and his coaching knowledge.

Vic has authored six books, contributed to publications such as Sports Illustrated, and continues to author editorials for several publications such as Tennis Week and Tennis Life. In addition, he has appeared on popular television shows including NBC?s Today Show, hosted his own television shows on PBS and ESPN, and provided televised tennis commentary for numerous professional events.

His lighthearted approach is endearing, and his motto of ?Laugh and Win? has helped shape the resoundingly positive attitudes of decades of students. In his books, videos, Tennis Colleges, and speeches, Vic strives to teach effectively and connect with students on a personal level, aiming to uncover the ?genius to perform? that he believes rests in every individual.

Working with famous sports researchers for several decades, Vic finds great joy in passing on new and valuable information. He strives to help students maximize their performance and enjoyment of this great sport in the shortest period of time. In our (thoroughly biased) opinion, Vic is ?simply the best!!!?

Comments? Contact Vic Braden at vicbraden@vicbraden.com.


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