Photograph: Getty Images
Our best Aussie players head to the clay of Roland Garros this week. And for those not in Paris, they’ll be abroad on the clay elsewhere on the tennis tour.
It’s a surface which our players are generally not well accustomed to. The problem being - if you want to hit and compete on clay – Australia is simply not the place.
As a nation, we have never fared well on slower paced courts.
Roland Garros has been our least successful Grand Slam and generally speaking, Australians have always struggled on the clay.
But, by no means is this new information. Our lack of clay success is well documented and yet little has been done about it.
There may appear to be good reason for this, with the majority of professional tennis being played on hard courts and three of the four majors contested off the clay.
So understandably, developing one’s game on other surfaces may seem more crucial for achieving success at tennis’ top level.
However, while a lack of clay court development does lead to less great clay courters - more importantly - a lack of clay courts leads to less great tennis players.
Clay is undoubtedly the best surface for development as a tennis player. A host of players and coaches have discussed the benefits of learning on clay for both physical and mental growth.
It is less taxing on young players, particularly in its prevention of joint-based injuries.
It breeds court craft, point construction, and patience. Qualities which are exemplified by the world’s best players.
In fact, nine of the current ATP top 10 and eight of the WTA top 10 are from European nations, where clay is the predominant surface.
And by no means are these players solely clay court specialists, but it is largely their clay development which brings about success across all surfaces.
Men’s tennis, in particular, has undergone a major shift this century with the serve-volley game all but ceased and players now needing a variety of shots to win matches and titles.
This has seen more and more Grand Slam winners residing from European and South American, clay-based, nations.
In fact, the past 73 men’s major titles have been won by players from these two continents, dating back to 2003.
Australia and the USA are two countries which have failed to adjust to this trend.
Both nations dominated tennis throughout the 20th century and still had Grand Slam winners in the early 2000’s. However, since then, success on the men’s side has completely dried up.
No American man has won a major since Andy Roddick in 2003 and no Australian man has triumphed since Lleyton Hewitt in 2002.
This is quite extraordinary, considering these are two of the four nations with a home Grand Slam, which provides major funding and playing opportunities, and should breed major champions.
But it is no coincidence that both nations, who continue to develop junior players on surfaces other than clay, are struggling to produce Grand Slam titlists.
Looking specifically at our current Australian men and women, the top end is quite bleak.
There are just two Australian players inside the top 70 of either the ATP or WTA rankings, with Alex De Minaur at 21 and Ajla Tomljanovic at 44.
And unsurprisingly, neither developed their game in Australia.
Tomljanovic grew up in Zagreb, Croatia until the age of 13, where the main surface is clay. And De Minaur lived in Spain between the ages of 5 and 13, also evolving his game on clay.
For players learning in Australia from a young age on a mix of artificial grass, en-tout-cas, and hard courts, it is incredibly hard to develop into a major winner.
Former Australian Grand Slam champion Neale Fraser discussed the flaw behind the style of play that we tend to adopt.
“Australians just want to whack, whack, whack and hit a winner. That’s not the game. This is hopefully what clay will teach them because they won’t be able to hit winners as much. They’ll have to play more shots, eliminate errors, have patience, and grind it out”, Fraser told the Australian Financial Review in 2013.
In the same piece, Australian clay court development manager Chris Kachel described a major benefit of learning on the surface.
“If you develop on a slow court, you can play on a quick court, but if go the other way and develop on a quick court, it’s very difficult to then go to a slow court”, told the AFR.
And yet since then, while progress has been made, there is still ample room for growth.
In 2012, Tennis Australia launched eight new Italian clay courts as part of Melbourne Park’s National Tennis Centre.
They have also published that there are currently 68 tier one (highest level professional surface) clay court facilities around the country, up from just 1 in the 1990’s. Additionally, there are now annual junior clay court championship events hosted in Canberra, as well as local ITF events being contested on clay. It’s a start. But we still need a much wider spread of these courts across Australia’s hundreds of tennis clubs to boost junior progression around the country.
Ash Barty is one example of the success that will stem from these initiatives, with the Queenslander having trained on Brisbane’s clay courts upon her return to tennis and eventual rise to world number one.
As more juniors spend their time training and developing on clay, we will begin to see more Australian success at the top level of tennis.
Increasing the number of clay courts around the country and the opportunity for our juniors to practise and compete on the surface simply must be a focus.
It is without doubt that clay court development will help produce our next Grand Slam champions.