Late in the nineteenth century, William Renshaw, an Englishman famed for his tennis game—he’d won six Wimbledons in a row—found himself with a dilemma. He was in sunny Cannes on vacation, planning to make some money on the side by giving tennis lessons. Back then, the game was played exclusively on grass; anything else was heresy. But when Renshaw examined the court at his disposal, he could see that the grass had grown brown and thin beneath the hot sun—it would wilt under the pressure of his well-heeled feet. A light went off in his head: he decided to have load after heaping load of red clay transported from Vallauris, a small seaside town known for its devotion to the ceramic arts. He convinced the town to part with some of its rejected pottery, pulverized the clay into tiny grains, and applied a thin, protective layer to the grass court in Cannes. The clay court was born.
Today, it’s a fifteen-minute drive from Vallauris to Cannes, and less than an hour to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, the home of the Monte Carlo Open, the first stop in the men’s clay court season. The stylish locales of the biggest clay tournaments—Buenos Aires, Rio, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Paris—belie the true grit at the heart of their tennis. Clay games are a grind; the surface is rooted in a pragmatism made from and infused by the tactile, utilitarian art of ceramics, and it distinguishes itself from other tennis surfaces in its erratic effects. It forces the player’s body to adapt or fail. Shots sponge off the granular surface, slowing down and trampolining back into the air at unlikely angles. Returns that would have been winners on grass and hard courts come ricocheting back to you, sometimes bouncing as high as your shoulders, and players have to slide into their shots. It’s hard to stress how difficult it is to adjust to these conditions. Imagine a two-month span of the basketball season in which everyone was forced to play on a thin layer of sand. Suddenly there’s a premium on probing, strategic shots over straight-ahead power.
When I was a kid, watching tennis in the wake of the all-court superstars like Chris Evert and Björn Borg, I loved the clay season: it drew my attention to players who weren’t often afforded a shot in grass and hard-court matches. The clay-court specialists: I grew up thinking of them like those poets who had that one great mode in them, spring or death or jazz. They were Spanish, Brazilian, Italian, Austrian, Argentine, and, once in a while, American. Out there on the red earth, they’d sweep up what titles they could while the Pete Samprases of the world bowed out in early rounds, their sure footwork suddenly clumsy. The clay season was a time of difference and entropy, of opportunistic, short-lived dominance.
These days, my daughters wake me up to watch matches across the world. We start early in the morning, before school. They learn about geography, time zones, and the changing surfaces of the tennis year, those seasons unto themselves. For my eldest, who is five, the greatest mystery about clay isn’t how to play on it. Rather, she wonders why everyone calls it red when it’s clearly orange. Her younger sister agreed: It’s orange! Some lines from Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not a Painter” came surging into my head:
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
It’s been a great clay court season this year. I hope you caught some of it. Spoiler alert: Rafa Nadal won almost everything. Roger Federer saw what was coming and decided to skip the clay swing entirely. Serena is pregnant and didn’t play. Jelena Ostapenko, a twenty-year-old on the verge of being swept away in the Women’s Final in Paris, turned her shots up to eleven and came out of nowhere to win Roland Garros. And during every match, the players were covered in orange dust, back to front, head to toe. It’s not yet quite summer, but the heat has arrived. The clouds are scarce. The sky is bursting blue, but, as Van Gogh said, there is no blue without yellow and without orange.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground and Heaven. He is currently writing a book about tennis, The Circuit, which will be published in 2018.