How To Become A Dirt Rat; Tips For Clay Court Tennis

The main questions we get in the shop about different court surfaces are when customers are buying shoes and tennis balls.

There are simple distinctions to guide customers through these purchases, such as opting for a herringbone – or zigzag – pattern on the sole of their shoe to gain better traction on clay courts, however optimising your game on any surface involves some important technical and tactical tweaks.

One of the most common surfaces at the clubs in the ‘tennis belt’ around our shop is en tout cas, which is similar to the red clay of Roland-Garros

Get ready for your socks to be as stained as the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944!

For players unfamiliar with the surface, it can be a unique and challenging experience. Depending on the quality of the en tout cas, balls sometimes stay low after landing on a clump of clay or stand up vertically if they hit a heavily-brushed line, or squirt sideways off uneven nails along the lines.

Play is slower than on synthetic grass and hard courts. The bounce feels damper and the ball often seems like it’s arcing in slow motion, forcing players to take cuts at it from above shoulder height or to stand deeper in the court – like Rafa! – to wait for the ball to drop to their preferred contact point.

Rallies tend to last longer in both singles and doubles play. You really have to ‘construct’ points by playing less uniform  or less predictable  shots, and alternating the pace and spin you put on the ball.

Michael Chang famously employed an underarm serve against Czech robot, Ivan Lendl, on his way to winning the French Open as a 17-year-old in 1989, which is a great example of thinking outside the box!

Inexplicably, the Czechs had NOT programmed Lendl (pictured above) to return underarm serves

Hitting the ball ‘behind’ your opponent – or wrongfooting them – is another clever option on en tout cas, because it’s more difficult to pivot and change directions than on a hard court.

Drop shots can be especially effective, as the ball will grip and generate more sidespin. The best way to hit a well-disguised drop shot is to maintain a regular backswing and then check the stroke by cutting under the ball at the last possible moment. This way your opponent will have less time to transfer their weight forwards, even if they are a determined, ultra-fit vegan like Novak Djokovic!

One change-up tactic the pros employ is to hit a kick serve wide to the backhand court, pushing their opponent deep and sideways, so that they can serve-and-volley. You’ll need to have a decent kick serve to pull this off, though.


Sliding into the ball is the most fun part of clay court tennis. Players need to learn to ‘trust’ their slide, which can take some time.

You can control your slide by using the toe of your back foot to steer the rest of your body, especially when sliding forwards and on 45-degree angles. After a while, this will feel intuitive and – like Rafa when he's picking his wedgie between points – you won’t even realise you’re doing it!

Andre Agassi used to call the players who terrorised him during the European clay court season ‘dirt rats’, for their tendency to scutter out from the cracks and cause upset results by grinding out long, exhausting rallies (and presumably celebrating afterwards with fromage!).

Spaniard Alex Corretja (above) was twice a runner-up on the clay of Roland-Garros, and achieved bugger all on other surfaces

My advice, when playing on en tout cas, is to be more positive than the likes of Nick Kyrgios and Daniil Medvedev, who openly despise the surface, and tend to adopt a defeatist mindset.

Enjoy sliding around the court! Enjoy the tactical adjustments! Enjoy the creativity! Enjoy the red dust caked on your clothes! Enjoy the granules lodged in the grommets of your tennis racquet!

Enjoy becoming…a dirt rat!

October 19, 2021 — Murray Middleton

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