Red Clay Singles Tactics: The Battle of Balance 

 

The French Open has come and gone, as has the red clay court season in the ATP Tour.  So it's time to wrap up this series on Red Clay Singles Tactics.  The Men's Final at Roland Garros this year was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament.  #8 seed Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland beat the heavily favored #1 player in the world, Novak Djokovic of Serbia in 4 sets.  Wawrinka hit 59 winners past one of the best defensive players in the history of the game on the slowest surface in the world.  In pulling off this exceptional feat, he demonstrated a key skill to clay court success: knowing when to go for the winner, and when not to.

 

The footing on red clay is what makes the tennis so different than even slow hard courts.  If you try to hit winners while positioned behind the baseline and/or when you're off balance, the chances of an error skyrocket.  The ideal scenario to set up on this surface goes like this: you go for winners when you're inside the baseline and on balance, and your opponent is off balance. It usually takes several  shots to set up these conditions, and that's why clay court points longer than other surfaces.

 

What was so amazing about Wawrinka's win was that he was able to consistently get Novak Djokovic off balance (few players in the world can do this!). Here are some tactics that Stan used that any level of player can use on clay to get their opponent off-balance:

 

  • Hit shots of varying depths. For example, deep shot to one corner, followed by a sharp angle to the other corner. 
  • Combine sharp angle shots with hitting behind the opponent. Due to the footing, reversing direction is a tough task, so going for a winner to the same side where a sharp angle has just been hit can produce great results

 

Now here's a couple of strategies that Wawrinka was able to pull off that require some very high level skill:

  • Using flat groundstrokes right down-the-middle that were so hard they forced Djokovic to back up much deeper than he prefers. This was then combined with powerful angle groundstrokes to either corner for winners. This is a rare tactic because typically the straight ahead power shots are dulled by the clay...but if you've got enough power to push your opponent back, this tactic works!
  • Using a 1-2 combo of a deep power groundstroke to a corner and a short slice that brought Djokovic to the net. That means he arrives at the net off balance, and was easier to pass.  While this is a more common clay court tactic, the tough part is to produce enough power on the corner shot to move your opponent well behind the baseline. Otherwise, your opponent will get to that short slice on balance and do some damage to you! 

 

In the end, Stan Wawrinka spent more time on balance, and was more often the first one to be in position to offensive shots, and that brought him a French Open Title.  Use the tactics I've described above, and you can have the same great results in your next clay court match!  Here's a highlight reel from that match where you can see all those tactics in action!

 

Novak Djokovic vs. Stan Wawrinka French Open 2015 Final Highlights