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Sun, March 24

Column: Tennis' wild ride on clay

Unlike the Midwest to eastern parts of the United States, here in the Southwest you won't find many clay tennis courts. When one of our homegrown players finally gets the chance to partake in a tournament on clay, they normally feel like a fish out of water.Clay courts are made of crushed shale, rock, stone or brick. The red type of clay is slower than the green, which is known as "American" clay.Most of us are used to playing on hard courts. Clay is softer which slows down the speed of the ball and when you get moving in one direction and try to stop fast, you'll find yourself in a bit of a slide. With recovery from shots slower and the game toned down, strategies and shot selections from what we're used to on concrete and asphalt surfaces can make even advanced players crazy.The French Open is the only major that is still played on clay, and it's coming up May 24-June 7. Clay court specialist and No. 1-ranked player in the world Rafael Nadal is looking to win his fifth consecutive championship where he has yet to lose a match during his professional career.Another great tennis player, Justine Henin, won four French singles titles in a row before she took an early retirement last year.But American great Chris Evert still holds the record for the longest winning streak on clay for either gender by going from August 1973 to May 1979 taking 125 consecutive clay court matches, a record that may never be broken.We are lucky enough to have a clay court club nearby at the Sedona Racquet Club. In fact, they have many tournaments held there open to the public. The 36th annual Sedona Senior/NTRP Open will be held there May 1-3, with an entry deadline of April 19. It includes all levels of play and age categories in the open with singles, doubles and mixed events. You can call Larry Lineberry at 928-300-5394 for more information.But back to what you need to consider when you get the opportunity to play in a clay court event.Clay is the slowest of tennis court surfaces. This allows more time to get each ball, thus reducing the effectiveness of a power game.If you can't put a ball away as easily, you need to be more patient. Instead of trying to win points by hitting one big shot, look to win them with a combination of two or more. You need to get your opponent farther out of position on clay in order to keep him from getting your next shot.A couple tactics might be:Hit a ball just beyond the corner of the service box and on their return go deep to the open court. If they're racing back to cover the open court, hit behind them. Changing direction on a clay court once you're in a run is almost impossible.Heavy top-spin deep to your opponent's backhand (which bounces high out of their strike zone) many times will give you a weak approach shot/short ball to easily volley or put away.Force your opponent to retrieve shots from well behind their baseline. Do this by hitting moon-balls forcing them back and then follow up with a drop shot that really digs into the clay surface and dies.Be ready to hit more shots during a rally. If you aren't physically fit to do that you might find yourself in trouble.If you get pulled off the court and know getting back is not going to happen quickly, hit the defensive lob and buy some time.Take a condensed backswing if you find the different bounces are taking their toll, then adjustments will be easier. Getting set up to fire a hard shot back that takes a bad bounce only tends to frustrate and take your confidence away.Learn to slide into your shots. This takes some practice, so try to get some time on the court before you play any serious matches.It's clay court season for the pros right now, so give it a try yourself and get the feeling of what they're contending with. It'll definitely give you a new appreciation for a different set of skills.(Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 35 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-445-1331 or

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