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. Read More