I first played on a grass tennis court at the age of 12, as a guest at the Orange Lawn Club in South Orange, New Jersey. I remember being bedevilled by the surface and aggrieved by the dress code. Unsurprisingly, I lost the match. Not long after, I abandoned tennis altogether, feeling wounded by a demoralising run of losses to older players. But not making more of the opportunity – or even enjoying it – has always irked me.
Since re-embracing tennis as an adult, I have wanted another crack at grass. I have also wanted a slice of the life of the pros, who move from the slow, grinding games of the springtime red clay season and the French Open to the all-important summer grass tournaments, and back again to the hard-court Australian and US Opens.
For help, I enlisted Howard Moore, director of tennis at the Saddlebrook Resort near Tampa, Florida. The plan was to play a set on all three Grand Slam surfaces, rotating from grass to clay to hard court after three games, testing Moore’s strategies for each surface. My opponent would be Alvaro Betancur, the resort’s director of coaching and a former pro.
Saddlebrook has 45 courts, including two Bermuda grass courts and two red clay courts similar to those at Roland Garros in Paris, where tennis stars begin their fight for the French Open this weekend. It also employs dozens of green clay courts and DecoTurf hard surfaces like the courts at the US Open. (The Australian Open is played on a Plexicushion surface, slightly slower than DecoTurf.)
Dressed in crisp all-whites, projecting his voice as though 78ft and a net separate everyone from him, Moore explains the challenges of the first surface. Crucially, the ball dies when it bounces on grass. “One must make adjustment steps and be constantly moving to anticipate a ball that is dropping exceptionally quickly. As it did right there,” Moore says as I lunge for a ball during the warm-up. Very few balls go where I predict; slice shots bounce two or three times before I can get to them and well-struck balls fly past me while I’m still in my backswing. To compensate, Moore says, aggressive play is paramount.
Since a well-struck shot will skid low, he explains, volleys are particularly effective. Grass specialists often like to approach the net – just think of the serve-and-volley game of Pete Sampras, with whom Betancur has worked. “The fact that the ball’s dropping so quickly means you need to be moving towards it, looking for anything you can get into the net on,” Moore says
We begin the match. With skin as tanned as leather and groundstrokes as reliable as a ball machine, Betancur is a clay court specialist who has played at the Grand Slams, including a memorable match against Guillermo Vilas at the US Open.
He dutifully serves and volleys to start. I rip a forehand return down the line, straight past him. It is a good but fleeting feeling. Betancur quickly wins three straight games, and might as well have eaten my lunch too. Thrown off balance, I hit several serve returns off the frame. Most points last only three or four shots. “Every shot here counts,” Moore says afterwards. “On this surface it’s all about the tactics.”
Moving to red clay, I feel more confident. I grew up on clay and consider it my best surface. Like grass, it can yield an unpredictable bounce, but that’s where the similarities end. The ball is slowed down by the soft surface and the bounces are high. As such, points tend to be much longer. “Clay favours a patient shot-maker,” Moore says. “Everything happens more slowly here, which will give your strategy time to work.”
The first thing I notice is how winded I become. On grass the rallies were so short I didn’t have time to get tired. Not so on clay. And after the speed of the grass court, I find myself out in front of a lot of balls, leading to still more miss-hits. The slowness of the clay neutralises my hard, flat first serve and Betancur is able to break me. But his serve is slowed down too, and I find that I can dictate points off the return. At last, I manage to break him back.
But again, Betancur overwhelms me, opening the court up with high, loping topspin shots that have me retreating behind the baseline. Once I am entrenched back there, he gently places a drop shot just over the net. I compensate for his consistency by going for dazzling but difficult winners too early, missing many of them. Moore is not impressed: “You’ve got to get into the point before you can look to end the point.”
At 1-5, my set on life support, we move to a hard court, a surface I’ve never cared for. I’ve always preferred the slower pace of clay. I am surprised, then, when Moore tells me that hard courts are my best surface. Besides the ball speed (which falls somewhere between clay and grass) the main difference is that you’re playing your opponent, not the surface. The bounce is true, so fewer last-minute adjustments are needed. Moore advises me to play to my strengths. “I would encourage you to hit more forehand winners, rather than to concentrate on your backhand,” he says, tactfully alluding to my weaker stroke.
As I bash away during a quick warm-up, Moore analyses my play. “On the grass and clay there was much more of a struggle to measure the bounce,” he says. “But here you’re doing well visually, picking the height of the ball, and you’re rallying with far more control than on the other two surfaces.”
Buoyed by the instant improvement in my game, I turn aggressive on Betancur, and by going for winners early, I break him again. Serving at 2-5, I think that if I hold serve, which should be no problem on the fast DecoTurf, I could make a respectable final score. Perhaps sensing the same thing, Betancur knuckles down and breaks me right back to end the set and my afternoon.
Even though I’ve played on all three surfaces before, comparing them back to back taught me a lot about my game. Moore agrees. “On grass and clay, there was so much going on for you mentally, it was a bit of a throw-off, but when you came out here you knew exactly what you were dealing with so it all went very well for you.” Another crushing loss to an older player, sure, but a productive one.
Saddlebrook Resort, 5700 Saddlebrook Way, Wesley Chapel, Florida, US; 001 800 729 8383; www.saddlebrooktennis.com