You hear the question and the debate thrown up time and time again. Junior performance tennis players and what surface they are exposed to in regards to their overall physical and mental development.
What is the best to grow up on? What is the very best to learn the skills necessary for success at the higher levels of the game? What should we be focused on and how the heck does the surface under our feet change anything at all?
Let’s dive in and start by saying that first of all it is the coaches responsibility to develop all aspects of their juniors game from top to bottom. All areas of the game should be covered and developed. Ground strokes, volleys, serving, slice, drop shots, movement patterns, patterns of play, mental focus and toughness, strength training recommendations, nutrition and between point routines are all areas the coach should be covering.
It is their responsibility to equip the junior as best they can with an all court game focus so they are prepared and equipped to compete at the high levels of the game (College to Pro Tour).
You can teach all of these things no matter if the surface is grass, hard, clay, syn grass, indoor carpet, a potato field or maybe even a pumpkin patch. It does not matter. But one surface stands above all else and speeds up all these areas if you have access to it. Let's Talk About Clay.
Why is clay the best surface to develop your game? Clay improves endurance and consistency as the average rally in junior tennis on clay is significantly longer. SIGNIFICANTLY.
Performing drills on clay is way more beneficial. It is not unusual for junior players to have 25 + ball rallies when drilling, something that is just not normal on any other surface.
The tactical awareness of junior players naturally develops because of the situations they find themselves in and their problem solving capabilities also improve. It is harder to finish the point, as players start to understand different ways to win points.
The game actually becomes like a game of chess with the junior having to tap into the thinking side of the game rather then just use brute force to dominant their opponent.
Selective drop shot execution comes into the equation as well as heavy top spin, change of pace and change of direction tactics.
Technical deficiencies on clay become more prevalent and obvious as you have to create pace and spin on a more consistent basis. Flaws in technique will be exposed. Junior performance players developing on clay courts must have that solid sound technique.
How about movement? What is that all about on Clay?
Well you need to get used to sliding. Clay = Sliding, simple as that. Every time you set foot on a clay court you will be sliding, you will be building balance, you will be building leg strength which is key for long term success. Muscles in your legs develop like no other surface provides.
The stronger the legs the more balance, power and stability you have in your game. Is Clay a softer surface? Does that help me? It sure does help you. Hard courts can be brutal on the juniors body. It is no secret that clay is a softer surface and you slide into your shots.
You are not decelerating all the time like on a hard court. This puts major stress through your leg/hip joints as well as your lower back. Clay is indeed much more kinder to the body.
What about Offense, Defense, Patience??? Can I come in and volley???
Clay helps every single one of these areas for the junior performance player. You cannot just be all about defense on clay. You must combine the offensive part of the game and finish points at the net when you need to.
The great thing about clay is how transferable all the skills are once you move to other surfaces. When you come forward and finish points at the net on clay you become competent in that area. When competing on a hard court or on grass this area becomes even easier and smoother because those surfaces are traditionally faster.
Patience is important on the clay, defense is as important as ever but the attacking offense is something you can develop and thrive in on the clay as well.
There are many examples of players who grow up playing on clay as juniors but their aggressive attacking style translates better to other surfaces also. The clay surface develops the all court style.
So if clay courts are best for developing junior performance players how does that look across the world game?
Well it is all about Europe. Performance juniors literally play and train on clay every day and compete in tournaments on clay non stop over a 6 month period minimum each and every year.
It is about Access. European junior tennis is an absolute powerhouse because of this fact and the close proximity the developing junior has to clay no matter the location or country.
Around 50% of all the professional men’s tour events are held on clay. So if you haven’t the skills to play well on clay, then that makes it a lot more difficult for scheduling when you hit the pro tour. European tennis is the clear front runner in regards to clay court access as well as the sheer depth of quality player that is competing in these clay court events on the Pro Tour.
They grow up on it, they grind on it and they develop on it. It’s why you see so many getting results on that surface while the Pro Tour players from the USA, Australia and Asia avoid that surface.
So if Clay is the answer for development and I don’t have access what should the Coach do?
You need to develop all of the skills of your junior performance player that translates to a Clay Court even though the surface under their feet is not clay. Patience, heavy spin, change of pace, angles, drop shots, defense, return position, upgrading to forehands, kick serves etc etc. Movement patterns and sliding will be the most challenging because of the surface but synthetic grass courts allow sliding and although not ideal there is a minor similarity.
Remember it is you the coach who is in charge of development regardless of the surface. You must equip your junior athlete so when they are thrown into the fire they are ready to thrive and succeed. Clay is a luxury that can enable this development for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above. But you must do all you can where you are with what you have got. Now get to it coach 👊👊👊.