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Clay courts allow for slower play.
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Tennis is played on different court surfaces that vary greatly. There are four main types of tennis court surfaces -- carpet, clay, grass and hard surface. Each type has various characteristics that affect speed and style of play, not to mention cost and upkeep, according to the International Tennis Federation (ITF). The four major Grand Slam tournaments are played on varying surfaces and it used to be that players dominated based on a surface type -- as in Pete Sampras' domination on Wimbledon's grass courts. With changes to surface compositions in the last decade, the top players handle all types more easily.
A carpet surface is used for indoor courts and is the least common in tennis. It can be any number of synthetic materials, usually something called Supreme and later on Taraflex, that's like a large rubber mat rolled out over wood or cement to create a tennis surface, sometimes for a special event or a multi-purpose sports center, per the ITF. It was once used in the Masters Championships and the ATP World Championships, though no ATP or WTA tournaments take place on this surface any longer. There are big tournaments in Asia that still use it, however. It's a fast surface with low-bouncing balls.
If you see Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer duking it out on a deep red-colored court, you can instantly identify it as the French Open, played every spring at Roland Garros in Paris. It's the only Grand Slam tournament played on clay, and the largest clay tournament in the world, per the ITF. Clay is considered the slowest surface, with high-bouncing balls; the balls tend to bounce up instead of skidding. It favors those with a baseline game, and not the huge servers with the serve-and-volley style of play. Legendary champion and big server Pete Sampras won 14 Grand Slam titles, but a French Open victory alluded him. A true clay court is crushed shale, stone or brick, and is either deep red or green. Clay requires a lot of upkeep, as it must be frequently watered, rolled and brushed, according to the USTA.
The grass court is the fastest surface and is used at the Wimbledon Championships every July. Up until the 1970s, grass was used at three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, with the exception of the French Open, per the ITF. Grass courts take a lot of maintenance, with reseeding, watering and mowing; thus, you don't see many new grass courts popping up. But if you favor the serve-and-volley style game of Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, grass is your surface. It is an unpredictable surface, though; the bounce of the ball depends on how recently the grass has been mowed, the health of the grass and how much it's previously been played on.
Hard courts are the most common at tennis clubs and sports centers for both indoor and outdoor courts. Both the Australian Open and U.S. Open use types of hard court surfaces; the Australian Open uses a synthetic surface called Plexicushion and the U.S. Open uses a product called DecoTurf. A hard court is usually made of asphalt or concrete that has a layer of padding, which is then covered with paint that has sand mixed in. The more sand you add to the paint, the slower the surface becomes. Hard courts are usually considered the middle ground between clay and grass; it's a fast surface, but the flat, uniform surface is more predictable without the surprises of a grass or clay court. It's a good surface for a broader range of player styles, according to the ITF.
Shift to Slow Play
Beginning in the 1990s, tennis fans began to complain that the faster surfaces afforded a more boring tennis-viewing experience, per "The Atlantic." The faster surfaces didn't allow for long, suspenseful rallies, as points usually consisted of a hard serve, followed by a rush to the net, called a serve-and-volley game. Slower surfaces see the players staying put at the baseline, jockeying back and forth for long, drawn-out points. Many ATP tournaments, most notably every Grand Slam event, have slowed down their surface in the past decade. Wimbledon organizers changed the composition of their grass, the Australian Open changed to a slower hard-court surface and the U.S. Open added more sand to their courts in an effort to slow down play, according to "The Atlantic."