Another name for red clay is terre battue, but beaten earth sums up the toughness of this natural surface perfectly. Granules of ground red brick and tile grab the felt of a wildly-spinning ball when it pounds into terra firma. It creates different angles, different spins, and different strategies at the elite level of the game.
An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of the current Top 10 right-handed players identifies that they overwhelmingly prefer to serve more out wide in the Ad court against right-handed opponents on clay than hard.
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First serves are all about power and direction, but the terre battue enhances two more elements for this specific shot – spin and height.
For example, Dominic Thiem hits just over half (53.1%) of his first serves out wide on a hard court against right-handed opponents. When he steps onto a clay court, that number elevates more than 10 percentage points to 63.3 per cent as he now looks for his powerful first serve to also explode off the red dirt with more spin, and jump up higher out of the strike zone of the backhand return.
The data comes from hard-court and clay-court ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events from 2011-2018, and the Nitto ATP Finals. Thiem, 24, from Austria, has nine ATP World Tour titles to his name, with seven of them coming on clay. This specific tactic is a driving force behind his success.
Current Highest-Ranked Right-Handed Players
Roger Federer had the second-biggest jump with wide serves on clay over hard, with a 7.5 percentage-point increase, from 50.1 per cent to 57.6 per cent. The only player out of the group who did not serve more out wide on clay than hard is South African Kevin Anderson.
These clay-court serve factors come into play at all levels of the game. From Madrid to Melbourne, from the juniors to the pros, the high backhand return out wide in the Ad court is one of the toughest shots in our sport.