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Sport within a sport

Clay-court season is upon us, and it's a rough surface

Posted: Thursday April 13, 2006 1:02PM; Updated: Thursday April 13, 2006 1:37PM
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One of the reasons South American and European players such as Rafael Nadal do well on clay is their patience in waiting for the return.
One of the reasons South American and European players such as Rafael Nadal do well on clay is their patience in waiting for the return.
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This past week, a sport within a sport began: clay-court tennis. What is arguably tennis' toughest season tipped off around the world with events in Houston and Valencia, Spain.

Clay surfaces offer totally different challenges than the hard-court tennis that dominates the early part of the ATP Tour calendar. Clay-court tennis hinges on movement, strategy and defense. Sliding effectively on clay is an art unto itself. It combines the artistic flare of ice skating with the athletic grace of a ballerina.

The synchronization of sliding and hitting on the slippery clay surface is the key to success, and one that can only be mastered over time. This is one of the many reasons Americans are at a tremendous disadvantage on this surface. Clay courts are the standard in South America and throughout Europe, whereas American players usually develop their games on faster hard-court surfaces.

Clay-court tennis is more defense-oriented -- you're trying to figure out ways to make your opponent lose points almost as frequently as trying to win them outright. The ball isn't struck nearly as early, rallies last much longer, net clearance is significantly higher and angles and tactics replace sheer power because of the absorbing nature of the surface.

The clay slows the ball down, making it harder to attack and finish points off at the net.

The forehand is the dominant shot in clay-court tennis, and its execution directly correlates to the extra time players have, because the surface creates slow bounces. Big wind-ups and extreme grips help create massive racket-head acceleration that gives the ball an added hop when it comes off the court. This is where the term "heavy ball" comes from.

Players such as Rafael Nadal, Carlos Moya and Fernando Gonzalez can dominate play by hitting forehands on a majority of their shots. Their court coverage and footwork enables them to hit forehands from deep in their backhand corners with the confidence that they can run down any ball that threatens them.

The mind-set of a clay-court player runs completely contrary to most U.S. players'. Americans are taught to play aggressive, attacking tennis. Hard courts reward the player who controls the pace of play and puts the most pressure on his opponent. This is not necessarily the case on clay, where top spin, kick serves, drop shots, consistency and stamina are synonymous with success.

Clay specialists aren't as numerous as they were when I came on Tour 10 years ago, when drawing most South Americans on a fast surface -- like indoor supreme or grass -- was a true blessing. In today's game, most players have surface preferences, which correspond with their attributes and comfort level, but there are very few players in the top 100 who don't have all-around games.

That being said, certain players are particularly dangerous and fearsome on clay. They'll be forces to reckon with over the next few months. You might not be familiar with some, but they are respected in the locker room.

Peruvian Luis Horna has already won a clay-court event this year in Acapulco, Mexico. He is a powerful player who crushes forehands and runs like a mosquito. Horna upset Roger Federer in the first round of the French Open in 2003 and could go deep into the draw this year.

Jose Acasuso is one of many Argentineans who excel during clay season. He has also already captured a title this year, in Viña del Mar, Chile. He made his Davis Cup debut in Argentina's first-round victory over Sweden, which is a tremendous distinction considering the depth of clay-court talent in his homeland.

Chilean gold medalist Nicolas Massu is also a tough customer on the dirt. He took a title earlier this year in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil, and has proven that he can win on a big stage. Massu has the mentality of a pit bull and loves the physical challenges that present themselves during a clay-court battle.

Spaniard David Ferrer has had a lot of success on hard courts in the past year, but his favorite surface is clay. At last year's French Open he upset defending champion Gaston Gaudio on his way to a quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Nadal, and will be one of the contenders every week during the clay-court season.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

A quick congratulations to the U.S. Davis Cup team on its victory over Chile last weekend. I was particularly excited for Dean Goldfine, a fill-in for Davis Cup captain Pat McEnroe, who missed the tie to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. Goldfine, who is one of the most liked people in tennis, has coached many top world-class players over the years, including Aaron Krickstein, Todd Martin and Andy Roddick. Good luck to the boys in their semifinal against Russia.

Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com.

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